Dr. Kyle Annen, Director of Transfusion Medicine at Children’s Hospital Colorado, remembers the day she got the call from University of Colorado Hospital. They were caring for an adult patient who was critically ill with COVID-19. The situation was dire, and the patient’s family was desperate. They wanted to try a therapy known as convalescent plasma, and they asked if Children’s Colorado could help.
Convalescent plasma is an experimental treatment that involves collecting blood donations from people who have recovered from COVID-19. The plasma is then infused into patients who are critically ill with the virus to give their immune systems a much-needed boost.
“People who’ve recovered from coronavirus have antibodies living in their plasma,” explains Dr. Annen. “Those antibodies are like targeted missiles against COVID-19, which can then be given to another person actively fighting the virus.”
After receiving the call from University Hospital, Dr. Annen quickly mobilized her team. Within 8 hours, she had identified a recovered COVID-positive blood donor and safely collected the plasma. As soon as required infectious disease testing was completed, and the plasma was delivered to University Hospital, where it was infused into the adult patient. He has since made a full recovery.
A promising therapy
In late March, Children's Colorado became one of the very first hospitals in the nation to facilitate convalescent plasma treatment. Since then, the Blood Donor Center at Children’s Colorado has provided plasma to more than 150 patients, mostly adults, at 17 hospitals statewide as well as facilities in Utah and Illinois. Researchers at Children's Colorado have also joined the nationwide effort to evaluate antibody-rich convalescent plasma as a potential treatment for COVID-19. More data is needed, but early results are promising.
"We're very optimistic that this therapy will save lives and reduce health complications caused by COVID-19,” said Jerrod Milton, Senior Vice President of Professional and Support Services at Children's Colorado.
COVID-19 has not impacted children as much as adults, so why would a pediatric hospital be on the front lines of developing new therapies for adult patients? Because it’s the right thing to do, said Dr. Annen.
“We’re collecting convalescent plasma primarily for the adult community,” she said. “As a nonprofit, mission-driven hospital, it’s important that we’re supporting our broader community during this crisis. And this is one way that our team could help.”
The search for a cure
Convalescent plasma is just one way that Children’s Colorado is working to combat COVID-19. There are several other research studies and clinical trials underway to better understand, treat and prevent the novel coronavirus in both adults and children.
“We believe the solution to treating COVID-19 likely lies in children,” said Dr. Peter Mourani, Medical Director of Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Research Institute. “There’s a reason why children are relatively resistant to this disease. Once we understand why, we can use that knowledge to create new therapeutics to fight the virus.”
For example, Children’s Colorado is currently studying the ways that the immune systems of pediatric patients with asthma and allergies might help to protect them against the virus. Another study seeks to analyze and reduce the risk factors of health care workers on the frontlines of COVID-19 care.
Using the collaborative strength of the Anschutz Medical Campus, Children’s Colorado is also working with campus partners to establish a “bio bank” that contains samples from COVID-19 patients representing the full spectrum of care. By collecting rich data about each case and studying the samples, researchers hope to better understand why some people are more affected by the virus than others.
These research studies are being funded in large part by generous donors who stepped up quickly to help cure COVID-19. Dr. Mourani says that private philanthropy for new treatments and cures is needed more than ever.
“Research is tremendously reliant on philanthropy and the support of our community. In times of economic hardship, the funding for research tends to dwindle,” said Dr. Mourani.
Without sufficient funding, physician scientists will be hindered in their ability to make the rapid progress needed to cure COVID-19.
“Research is key,” said Dr. Mourani. “It’s the basis for every advance in health care we’ve ever made. That’s why we’re so grateful for the support of donors who enable us to continue to do the work that we do.”