RN Nicole Guttierrez draws blood from donor Melissa Stoltz, as clinical research coordinator Kynisha Johnson collects vials. (Leslie Cardé for The Lens)

The race to find a treatment for COVID-19  is in full swing as researchers in labs across the world attempt to unravel the unique properties of this disease, and find ways to neutralize it. To aid in the effort,  recovered patients in New Orleans — a national hotspot for infections — are participating in a blood sampling study led by a California biotech firm that hopes to find an FDA-approved treatment for the disease.

Early research has shown promising results from taking plasma from recovered patients (which contains antibodies) and transferring it intravenously into those succumbing to the virus.   But San Francisco based biotech company GigaGen wants to create a lab-made alternative which won’t rely on a steady stream of donors.

“We capture the antibodies from the blood cells joining together different DNA sequences, so we’re producing a new protein in the lab,” explained GigaGen CEO David Johnson, a genetic technologist and a former project director at Stanford University’s Human Genome Center.  “So, we can take cells from five or six people who’ve recovered from the virus and turn it into millions of doses which will tackle COVID-19.”

But how did a California biotech company connect with patients in New Orleans?  According to the physician and researcher in New Orleans who’s leading the charge, it was fairly serendipitous.

“I had gotten a call from the state’s disaster preparedness folks who asked if I could help with the drive-through [coronavirus screening] centers,” recalled Robert Jeanfreau, M.D., Medical Director of MedPharmics, a Metairie-based medical research company.  “I taught the 60 National Guard medics about nasopharyngeal swabbing procedures in order to make sure we had good specimens for testing. Within a week I began to get phone calls from pharmaceutical companies wondering about doing blood collection from recovered patients, so their antibodies could be used.  But getting the word out to the public wasn’t easy.”

Jeanfreau tried to get the message out to people who had been sick that they could help others who were critically ill by donating their blood, but passing out flyers at testing centers wasn’t allowed.  He said he wrote to U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, and U.S. Sen. (and physician) Bill Cassidy, both from Louisiana, about getting the information out, but got no response.  

It was appearances on local television urging people to donate that started the ball rolling, but it was an article in an industry magazine that caught GigaGen’s attention and led to a partnership, with MedPharmics collecting local samples to be sent to the California company. 

“The doctor in New Orleans has been incredible, and really effective in collecting samples,” Johnson said. “We spent a whole month just trying to figure out how and where to get samples … a month that we could have been working on a treatment.  That problem has now been solved.”

‘Just flossing my teeth made me gasp for air’

For those who have survived COVID-19, they know all too well how difficult it can be to get through the intense symptoms. 

“It began on March 20 when I had my first symptoms, an itchy throat and a low-grade fever of 99.6,” remembered Melissa Stoltz, now a donor at MedPharmics.  “It quickly progressed to chills, severe body aches, and constant coughing. The sinus pressure was intense, and I was totally exhausted. Just flossing my teeth left me gasping for air.”

Stoltz is used to giving blood as she’s a universal plasma donor, meaning she is that rare AB blood type whose plasma can be given to any other blood type.  Now she has a more personal interest in it. Her best friend’s father is in East Jefferson General Hospital’s ICU, on a ventilator.  

First, Stoltz had to demonstrate that she had recovered by testing negative for the coronavirus. Her blood sampling was then done twice: once for plasmapheresis to extract antibody-laden plasma — which she hopes to donate to her friend’s father — and again for samples being sent to California for clinical trials.  

The process is time-consuming, a luxury that many critically ill patients do not have. That is why biotech companies working on treatments are pedaling as fast as they can.

“Normally it takes around 10 years to get a drug to market, so this is incredibly compressed as we race to help,” Johnson said.  “But we still have to show that it’s safe in monkeys, among many other FDA protocols. The FDA is trying its best to expedite reviews but they are overwhelmed with requests coming their way.  We all want to respond quickly but can’t ignore ethical protocols. It’s a real balancing act between complying with stringent governmental regulations and protecting the public.”

The one important factor that Johnson and Jeanfreau said they agree on is that there is a dire need for more research. 

“We need to stem this flow of people into hospitals,” said Jeanfreau.  “Ultimately, we must take the high-risk population and give them drugs with antibodies, and boost their immune systems so they can combat this ravaging virus.”

Recovered COVID-19 patients wishing to donate blood samples for the clinical trial may call (504) 609-2333.  Participants will be compensated for time and travel.