Patients who recovered from COVID-19 at St. Luke’s University Health Network have donated their antibody-rich blood to medical science in hopes of helping to find an effective treatment or cure to the novel coronavirus that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans.
The “convalescent plasma” was separated from the survivors’ blood and is being studied as part of a research project labeled AR-701, sponsored by Aridis Pharmaceuticals, a biopharmaceutical firm in San Jose, Ca., that specializes in developing innovative treatments for various infections and lung diseases.
St. Luke’s joined the study in May, just after it began, said Vu Truong, PhD, chief executive officer of Aridis. “We asked St. Luke’s to participate because they are part of a large network of research-focused healthcare organizations,” he said. The Bethlehem-based network is the only site in Pennsylvania and the Middle Atlantic region participating in this research. Other hospitals contributing patient convalescent plasma are located in the U.S. Northeast and Europe.
“As a major clinical research institution, I hope St. Luke’s participation in this novel, life-saving, emerging technology will result ultimately in making an effective treatment for COVID-19,” said Stanislaw Stawicki, MD, principal investigator for the AR-701 project and chairman of Research & Innovation at St. Luke’s.
The plasma from COVID-19 survivors, which is the yellowish liquid part of the blood that contains disease-fighting antibodies, has shown to provide therapeutic benefits in infected patients. Convalescent plasma was recently granted Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA.
The blood components responsible for the treatment effect are the immune system’s disease-fighting antibodies, called monoclonal antibodies, which are made by certain blood cells as part of the body’s immune response.
After contracting COVID-19 last week, President Trump was treated with another drug maker’s experimental antibody cocktail that includes two monoclonal antibodies.
Since there is not enough COVID-19 convalescent plasma to treat all COVID-19 patients, Aridis is using proprietary technology to screen, identify and analyze immune cells that make the most effective monoclonal antibodies, which are then mass produced using genetic engineering. The resulting monoclonal antibodies ‘neutralize’ the infectious coronavirus, blocking its ability to reproduce coronavirus cells and infect patients’ lungs.
“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Truong said of the arduous and delicate process of screening blood cells from convalescent patients and recovering the specific cells that make the protective antibodies so that they can be genetically cloned and mass produced as a therapeutic treatment. Aridis’ goal is to develop a convenient delivery system that would facilitate treatment on a global scale.