Hackensack Meridian Health Awarded $5.5 Million by Department of Defense to Continue Convalescent Plasma Work for COVID-19

February 4, 2021

Treatments using antibodies of pandemic survivors bolstered by federal grant

Researchers and clinical experts at Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey’s largest and most comprehensive health network, were awarded Department of Defense funds to continue their work into convalescent plasma for treatment of COVID-19 patients.

The approximately $5.5 million will allow the researchers at Hackensack Meridian John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center, and their colleagues at the Hackensack Meridian Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) to continue phase 2 testing of the clinical treatments.

The goal of this outpatient work is to treat infected patients in the first 96 hours of symptoms with the antibodies found in plasma collected from COVID-19 survivors – with the aim to prevent hospitalization.

“We are trying to save lives,” said Michele Donato, M.D., FACP, CPE, chief of Stem Cell Transplantation and Cellular Therapy at John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center, and who is leading the study. “We believe we have done so – and the Department of Defense grant allows us to move the work forward to that end.”

The convalescent plasma program at Hackensack University Medical Center identifies “super donors” – those with the highest levels of neutralizing antibodies – through methodology developed by experts from the CDI. The new funding will support a study of early outpatient treatment with high-titer convalescent plasma for patients with at least one risk factor for severe disease.

Experts believe getting to these patients within the first four days of infection may make a significant difference in outcomes.

Convalescent plasma treatments have previously been used to fight other viral outbreaks, including those of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), caused by a virus that’s a cousin to the one responsible for COVID-19, and which sickened thousands in 2002-2003.

What separates the Hackensack trial from most convalescent plasma trials across the nation is the use of plasma donors with higher levels of neutralizing antibodies.

The program in Hackensack was profiled early in the pandemic by major media outlets, including the TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes and The New York Times.

“The Department of Defense funds will further our efforts to establish the necessary standards for this to be used as successful therapy,” said David S. Perlin, Ph.D., the chief scientific officer and senior vice president of the CDI.

“Our researchers are always finding ways to accomplish their mission: to save and better lives,” said Ihor Sawczuk, M.D., FACS, president of Hackensack Meridian Health’s Northern Market, and the chief research officer of the network. “The federal grant in this case acknowledges their work and its promise.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.