UVA Research Physician awarded over $480k from NIH-NCATS to study blood plasma as COVID-19 treatment

     As part of the efforts to fight COVID-19, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health has awarded a team of researchers at the University of Virginia a generous grant to study the effects of convalescent plasma, a treatment with roots a century old. Studying the effects of administering plasma from recovering COVID-19 patients may just provide physicians with the tools needed to defeat the virus. Blood plasma collected from donors who have recovered from a disease contains valuable antibodies that may assist affected patients in their recovery through programming the body’s defense system. By examining the human body’s adaptive immune response, Dr. Jeff Sturek and his colleagues hope to gain a better understanding of how to treat COVID-19. Scientists have been studying blood plasma for a long time; convalescent plasma was used in the early 1900’s to treat diphtheria. “You can think of your body’s immune system as an efficient laboratory” says Dr. Sturek “when scientists work to develop a therapy in the lab, their biggest challenge is time. The use of convalescent plasma is efficient because our own immune systems work to produce antibodies to combat an infection.”


     Convalescent plasma has shown promise in treating modern diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and MERS. Fortunately, those epidemics were limited in scale. The COVID-19 pandemic, though devastating, has presented an opportunity to study plasma treatments in a larger population. “The pandemic is a chance to do important work to understand the biology of the disease and how to treat it”. The trials targeted COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized, but not in critical condition. Now several months in, the patient enrollment phase has ended and the data analysis has begun. The aim will be to determine whether or not convalescent plasma has an effect in preventing the progression of COVID-19.

     In the initial phases of this clinical study, the researchers donated a lot of their time and effort. The team managed to cobble together funds from various sources to initiate the study. Notice of the NIH Award served as an affirmation of the team’s work and will provide vital financial support throughout the remaining study phases. The team of scientists were elated and according to Dr. Sturek “it felt like our work was valued by the NIH, an institution we all respect.” The team faced an initial obstacle in figuring out how to recruit donors, collect their plasma, and test it for antibodies, all before administering it to recipient patients. Dr. Sturek recounts “the logistical process of setting up a new screening clinic where we planned to see patients at 3-4 weeks out from testing positive, determining eligibility, drawing blood to test for titers, and then sending blood to the local Red Cross for donation only to ultimately get the plasma sent back at UVA Health seemed extremely daunting”. However, in a positive development, the research team secured access to the New York Blood Bank for plasma and therefore avoided the donor recruitment part of the study. Dr. Sturek received logistical and mentoring support from the Integrated Translational Health Institute of Virginia (iTHRIV). iTHRIV is funded by a Clinical and Translational Science Award. The institute combines the expertise of biomedical researchers and data scientists to create infrastructure and investigator resources for using data to improve health across Virginia. Partner sites include UVA, Virginia Tech, Carilion Clinic, and Inova Health System. Dr. Sturek stated that “being a part of iTHRIV has been invaluable for early career development as junior faculty. Importantly, the mentorship, both from more senior faculty as well as peers and other program members, has been a constant source of critical guidance and interpersonal support”. He notes “the connections made through the iTHRIV program opened doors and provided me with the opportunity to be involved in a broad range of COVID-19 clinical and translational research at UVA”.


     Sturek is assistant professor of internal medicine and an iTHRIV Scholar.  The iTHRIV Scholars Program is a two-year junior faculty career development program designed to cultivate the next generation of clinical and translational scientists. This program integrates many different activities which, taken together, are designed to position Scholars to become successful, independently funded clinical and translational health researchers. Sturek has already seen early success in his own career. Says Sturek, “I could not be more thrilled about being NIH funded at this point in my career.  This is a definitely a multidisciplinary team effort and the success of this program is a credit to my co- leaders from infectious diseases (Drs. Thomas and Heysell), pathology (Dr. Gorham), and cell therapy (Dr. Lum). I’m just lucky to be a part of it and to learn from these experienced investigators.”  

September 25, 2020 - Keith Jones - Keith.Jones@virginia.edu