It’s in your blood: How plasma donations can help treat rare diseases and potentially Covid-19

By Sean Hemingway, Senior Vice President and Global Head of BioLife Plasma Services at Takeda….

By Sean Hemingway, Senior Vice President and Global Head of BioLife Plasma Services at Takeda.

You wouldn’t look at plasma for the first time and think it was particularly important. After all, it’s just a pale yellow, watery liquid that makes up the less colorful half of our blood. Ask some people with a rare disease, however, or someone needing treatment for Covid-19, and you’ll get a different view. For them, plasma could be the difference between life and death. It is literally liquid gold.

Plasma is the substance that carries important cells, proteins, antibodies, hormones and oxygen around our bodies, protecting us from infection and blood disorders, and preventing blood clots. In its medical application, it has helped thousands of people survive and manage life-threatening diseases such as immunodeficiency disorders, hemophilia and hereditary angioedema. Now plasma could play a key role in the fight against Covid-19 too.

So make no mistake. Plasma is important. It is powerful. And it’s potentially a life-saver. That’s why International Plasma Awareness Week at the start of October is an important time to highlight the versatility and power of plasma, to explain how it’s used to treat disease and to remind everyone of the urgent need for plasma donations.

Unlike most other pharmaceutical products, plasma-derived therapies can only be made from people donating their plasma. Lots of donations too. Around 1,200 plasma donations from healthy adults are needed to treat just one hemophilia patient for a year.

How these donations are turned into life-changing treatments has rarely been mentioned outside the plasma industry or small patient communities. Now, however, thanks to the potential of plasma against Covid-19, I’m getting many more questions from family and friends about what I do at work than at any other time in my near three decades in the biopharmaceutical industry. They want to understand more about plasma, its importance, the donation process and how they can help. I’m only too happy to share.

The process by which plasma is separated from the blood cells is called plasmapheresis. There are a number of different ways it can be used after that, but broadly speaking there are two main approaches. The first is direct transfusion of plasma in its whole form. The second is to make a plasma-derived therapy, where plasma is pooled, concentrated, purified and processed into a variety of high-quality medicines such as immune globulins.

Through the pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about “convalescent” plasma. This is plasma that’s collected from donors who have recovered from a particular disease – in this case Covid-19 – and whose plasma, therefore, contains high titers of antibody against the specific pathogen. Both the direct transfusion of Covid-19 convalescent plasma and the manufacture of a “hyperimmune globulin” (H-Ig) medicine made from convalescent plasma are being investigated as having the potential to fight the disease. This means the plasma donations made by Covid-19 survivors could have a meaningful impact in the treatment of those affected by the virus.

The role of BioLife Plasma Services, part of Takeda, is pivotal in the development of plasma-derived therapies. We’re an industry leader in the collection of the high-quality plasma that is used to make life-saving medicines. Takeda’s ambition is to build on a 75-years-plus heritage in this area to unlock the full potential of plasma and develop innovative, sustainable treatments that meaningfully benefit patients worldwide.

In addition to our regular plasma collection activities, BioLife is collecting and supplying Covid-19 convalescent plasma for the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance. This is an unprecedented partnership of the world’s leading plasma companies that’s led by Takeda and CSL Behring. Together, we are putting public and patient health first by accelerating the development of a potential H-Ig treatment called CoVIg-19. H-Ig products have previously proven effective in the treatment of severe acute respiratory infections and so we are hopeful that this one will be shown to be safe and effective too through a global clinical trial that will start soon.

Plasma donation networks such as BioLife centers are a vital part of the communities in which they’re located. Donors not only contribute the source of these treatments, they also engender a sense of selflessness and solidarity within their immediate neighborhoods. Plasma donation presents an opportunity for communities to help each other, so raising awareness of the benefits of plasma is critical to making a difference for those who need these therapies most.

In view of the pandemic, our facilities have implemented additional screening and safety measures for donors and employees in line with public health guidance. Nearly all of our centers are safely collecting both regular and Covid-19 convalescent plasma.

These are difficult times. But all of us have the power to make a difference, to potentially help save lives. That power is, literally, in our blood. We can help change even more lives by raising awareness for plasma donations too. International Plasma Awareness Week is our reminder that there remains an urgent need for people to step up and donate – they could be providing a lifeline for a friend, relative or neighbor who’s living with a rare disease or Covid-19.

To learn more about BioLife Plasma Services, the donation process, and to schedule an appointment, please visit the BioLife website.

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