County joins statewide effort to ‘Conquer COVID Together’
A new partnership with the City of Hope Treatment and Research Center could put Ventura County on the forefront of the national effort to find treatments for COVID-19—and maybe even a vaccine.
The Duarte-based treatment center announced plans last week to begin a clinical study on treatments using antibodies, proteins that defend the body against infection. During the study, which received a $750,000 grant from an institute that funds stem cell research, researchers will work with infectious disease, pulmonary and critical care teams from medical centers and community hospitals across the state, including those in Ventura County.
The county’s plasma donation effort—called Conquer Covid Together—will screen and collect convalescent plasma from eligible donors. Ventura County physicians will evaluate COVID patients who receive transfusions and report how patients responded to the plasma to City of Hope.
Dr. George Yu, the Camarillo pulmonologist who organized the county’s first plasma donation, said the study could be a huge step toward getting the pandemic under control.
“We are literally writing history,” Yu said. “We’re able to use a grassroots organization to bring people together, put the talent together, to put the best ideas together to try to make this thing work.”
What are antibodies?
Antibodies are like “heatseeking missiles” that attack viruses and other toxins that enter the body, Yu said. Found in plasma—a component of blood— antibodies look for proteins on the surface of a virus and fit with them like a lock and key, Yu said.
In the case of the coronavirus, spike proteins stick out from the virus “like nubs on a crown.” When the antenna-like antibodies match with the virus, the virus is neutralized.
But not all antibodies are created equal. Some are more effective at fighting off the virus, and researchers are trying to identify those antibodies, which are found in what Yu calls “super donors.”
“Not every donor is the same. There are some donors with more of these antibodies than others, but so far we can’t tell. We don’t have a test that can tell us,” he said.
Once the most effective antibodies are identified, Yu said, it may be possible to clone them and use them for treatment of COVID 19 so convalescent plasma donations are no longer necessary.
The study is completely different from typical research into medical treatments, Yu said. Put simply, researchers usually come up with an idea for a possible treatment, run a sequence of clinical trials and get it approved by the Food and Drug Administration before it is available for use on patients.
“It typically takes three to five years,” Yu said. “We don’t have that time. The virus is killing people every day.”
Throughout the study, Ventura County medical facilities—along with a network of researchers and physicians across California— will provide constant feedback on which plasma donations seem to lead to improvement in COVID patients and which don’t.
According to the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, City of Hope researchers will also begin a “discovery stage research project” that will use stem cell models for a novel approach to a vaccine. Another project will use a unique lung stem cell organoid, or a 3D tissue-engineered mini lung, that replicates the functions of lung tissue to identify an effective drug against the virus.
Since the county’s first convalescent plasma donation by Camarillo resident Dwight Everett in early April, more recovered COVID-19 patients are lining up, virtually, to donate.
While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the experimental treatment, early studies out of China suggest it could be lifesaving.
All four of the patients that received plasma from Everett saw some kind of improvement— though it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of improvements, said Dr. Joshua Wolfsohn, an infectious disease specialist associated with St. John’s hospitals.
An unidentified male patient with prior medical conditions remains critically ill but in stable condition; another male patient with prior conditions is recovering and close to being discharged from the hospital, Wolfsohn said.
A unit of plasma was sent to Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria and given to Melissa Meza, who had been put on a life-support machine usually used as a last resort.
After receiving the transfusion, she began breathing on her own. As of April 24, she was still recovering in the hospital
Ron Shirley received the first transfusion of Everett’s donation.
Though Shirley’s condition improved after the plasma transfusion, the 80-year-old Camarillo resident died April 9 after being on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.
Ten people contacted the Ventura County Public Health Department last week in hopes of donating their plasma, likely the first of many more, Yu said.
The doctor hopes to collect a stockpile of antibodies so local hospitals will be ready to treat the next COVID-19 patients before they become severely ill.
To learn more about donating plasma, visit the website conquercovidtogether.com.
Taking antibody-rich blood plasma from people who have recovered from coronavirus infections and transferring it to patients who are severely ill with COVID-19 does not appear to increase their risk of dying from the disease, according to initial results of a nationwide clinical trial.
What’s more, the findings offer an early hint that the treatment may indeed save lives.
In Las Vegas, an ER doctor infected by COVID-19 was critically ill and getting worse, and his chest X-ray gave him a fright.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘My God, I’m gonna die.’”
But a call went out to a California pathologist, and soon a medical courier was driving from Santa Maria to Nevada with a container of frozen plasma packed in a cooler box.
Watch as Mayor Illece Buckley Weber of Agoura Hills interviews Dr. Catherine Ferguson, an emergency medicine doctor and Agoura Hills resident, about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experimental procedure the first in county
Dr. George Yu on the Bill Handel Radio Show Our very own Dr. George Yu, founder of ConquerCOVIDTogether, was on the radio with Bill Handel at KFI AM for an interview where he discussed the need for convalescent plasma donors in the fight against COVID and our website!...
Column: His patient near death, this determined doctor recruited a COVID-19 survivor to donate plasma Dwight Everett, a recovered COVID-19 patient, awaits his blood draw at St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo. Plasma from the 65-year-old retired...