Giving Blood, Advancing Science

Giving Blood, Advancing Science

MCW physician-scientist Mary Beth Graham, MD, knew early in 2020 that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was on a collision course with Wisconsin. Community-based transmission of the virus began in the state in March and brought with it the disease COVID-19, for which no proven and effective therapy existed. Dr. Graham resolved to do what she could to contribute to research into promising treatments for this new and deadly infectious disease, including the use of plasma donated by volunteers who had recovered from COVID-19.

“The theory behind convalescent plasma therapy is that you are taking antibodies that a recovered volunteer has naturally developed to fight off the virus and providing them to a COVID-19 patient whose immune system has not yet created the same defenses. I was interested in this approach because it has been effective in other viral infectious diseases, including some promising results in prior coronavirus outbreaks,” says Dr. Graham, who serves as an MCW professor of medicine and associate chief of the division of infectious disease.

Mary Beth Graham, MDDr. Graham contacted Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin – MCW’s partner organization and the provider of more than 230,000 units of blood annually to hospitals throughout the state – to discuss collecting plasma for research purposes and treatment under the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency investigational new drug application process. She worked in partnership with Gilbert White, MD, professor of medicine, biochemistry, and pharmacology and toxicology, executive vice president for research and director of Versiti’s Blood Research Institute, to garner an award from the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment to support basic science and clinical research regarding convalescent plasma and COVID-19.

“I’m thoroughly excited about this partnership because it combines research on the outcomes of patients receiving convalescent plasma transfusions with fundamental immunology research. As a former laboratory scientist, I know how important this basic science is to provide a foundation for advancing potential treatments for COVID-19,” adds Dr. Graham.

Also, she and more than 7,000 physicians across the country are combining information on patient histories and outcomes in order to accelerate convalescent plasma research. This national collaboration published results in mid-June about the safety of the treatment, reflecting data collected from 20,000 patients. Now that safety has been established, more research is needed to better understand the effectiveness of convalescent plasma for treating COVID-19.

“Many are looking to a potential vaccine as an end point, but we have to remember that only between 30-40 percent of people in Wisconsin get the flu vaccine every year even though it is safe and effective. So, we need to collaborate and support research into convalescent plasma and other promising treatments because we need them now – and we will need them long after a vaccine is made available,” Dr. Graham notes.

– Greg Calhoun

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