May The Plasma Be With You

Ask the DOC

I am old enough to remember watching the original Star Trek series in the ‘60s (on a black and white TV because that’s all we had). In one episode, Captain Kirk, Spock, and Dr. “Bones” McCoy are stranded on a planet where they catch an infection that causes them to rapidly age. The planet is populated by children and teens who are immune and do not age. Dr. McCoy is able to formulate a serum from the blood of these children. The serum contains antibodies which cure the infection when the serum is given to the crew. Many of the gadgets and computers in the show resemble things we use everyday today, for example smartphones. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the show, was a sci-fi genius akin to Arthur C. Clark and Jules Verne.

Today, Dr. McCoy’s serum is called convalescent plasma and it currently being used to treat people infected by COVID-19. Most people who recover from this virus develop antibodies (proteins that the immune system creates in response to infection) to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Antibodies are found in plasma, the yellow liquid portion of the blood. Plasma is collected from donors who have recovered from COVID-19 through a process called apheresis, which uses a special machine to separate the blood into different components. The plasma is removed, while the rest of the blood components are returned into the donor’s body.

Convalescent plasma has been used to treat other infections and shows promise in treating COVID-19. Research is being done to study the use of convalescent plasma to treat those with severe COVID-19 and also to prevent infection (prophylaxis) in certain high-risk patients exposed to the virus. The early results of these studies are promising and suggest that this treatment is helpful, but of course more, larger studies are needed. Plasma transfusions are generally safe and well tolerated by most patients. Side effects are rare but include mild allergic reactions. All donated blood, including plasma, is screened for blood type compatibility as well as infections like hepatitis B and C, HIV, and many other less common infections. SARS-CoV-2 is not spread by blood, and there is no risk of transmission from recovered donors.

Currently, people who have recovered from COVID-19 who had a confirmed positive test can donate plasma after they have been symptom free for at least 14 days. People who have recovered from suspected COVID-19 but never had a confirmed positive test may donate plasma if tests show they have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. If you want to donate plasma, contact the Red Cross or a local blood bank for more information. Finally, if you never watched the original Star Trek series or haven’t seen it in years, go watch some of the shows. It is amazing how prescient the show was, especially considering it debuted 54 years ago.

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By Peter Galvin, MD

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