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Survivors' Plasma Helps Blood Cancer Patients Battle COVID-19

Henderson plasma
Dr. Henderson holds bag of convalescent plasma Photo: Matt Miller

FRIDAY, June 18, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- Giving COVID-19 survivors' blood plasma to blood cancer patients hospitalized with COVID-19 significantly improves their chances of survival, a new study finds.

"These results suggest that convalescent plasma may not only help COVID-19 patients with blood cancers whose immune systems are compromised, it may also help patients with other illnesses who have weakened antibody responses to this virus or to the vaccines," said study co-first author Dr. Jeffrey Henderson. He is an associate professor of medicine and of molecular microbiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"The data also emphasize the value of an antibody therapy such as convalescent plasma as a virus-directed treatment option for hospitalized COVID-19 patients," Henderson explained in a university news release.

Plasma from COVID-19 survivors is called convalescent plasma because it contains high levels of antibodies against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Cancer patients may be at a higher risk of death from COVID-19 due to a weakened immune system. Giving them convalescent plasma is meant to boost their immune system's ability to fight the disease, the study authors noted.

"As more COVID-19 patients began receiving convalescent plasma, we started hearing physicians around the country report remarkable clinical improvements following convalescent plasma infusions in COVID-19 patients with blood cancers and antibody deficiencies, some of whom were already very ill," Henderson said.

"I have seen one of my own patients with blood cancer quickly improve after receiving convalescent plasma. Similar stories that were often very detailed suggested that a formal study would help physicians with decisions they were already making on a daily basis," he added.

In the new study, Henderson's team assessed the 30-day death rate among 966 adults, average age 67, who had a blood cancer (such as leukemia, lymphoma or multiple myeloma) and were hospitalized due to COVID-19. Convalescent plasma was given to 143 of these patients.

Death rates were just over 13% for those who received convalescent plasma and nearly 25% among those who didn't receive it, the researchers reported.

The difference was even larger among the 338 patients admitted to intensive care due to severe COVID-19 symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or cardiac distress. In these patients, death rates were nearly 16% among those who received convalescent plasma and 47% among those who didn't receive it.

The report was published June 17 in JAMA Oncology.

"In March 2020, the [U.S.] Food and Drug Administration provided a pathway for hospitalized patients to receive COVID-19 convalescent plasma if requested by their physicians. After this, the decision to give convalescent plasma was made by physicians and patients on a case-by-case basis. There were no restrictions on when during the course of illness convalescent plasma could be given to patients," Henderson said.

Study co-first author Dr. Michael Thompson is an oncologist and hematologist at Advocate Aurora Health and Advocate Aurora Research Institute, in Wisconsin. He said, "Given that patients with blood cancers have higher mortality rates from COVID-19, we suspect our findings, along with other similar cases not in this database, support using convalescent plasma to improve survival in these patients."

More information

The American Red Cross has more on blood donations from COVID-19 survivors.

SOURCE: Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, news release, June 17, 2021

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