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Bloodmobiles To Collect Plasma From West Africa's Ebola Survivors


Researchers are preparing tests in West Africa. They want to see if blood from Ebola survivors can help people who are sick with that disease. Three specially equipped blood mobiles have been shipped to Africa, and they could soon be put to use to produce what's called convalescent serum. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: People who've been treated for Ebola in the United States have been given blood serum from Dr. Kent Brantly and other people who have survive Ebola themselves. Vicki Tifft at a company called ClinicalRM says, this requires specialized equipment - equipment that is not available in West Africa. So her company outfitted three bloodmobiles with everything they need to collect that blood serum.

VICKI TIFFT: So the fastest means in mechanism for us to be able to provide this was to get these bloodmobiles outfitted very quickly, get them on a plane to the hot zone areas.

HARRIS: They're now on the ground in Guinea and elsewhere in West Africa. The project is funded principally by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also supports NPR's global health coverage. These vehicles don't simply collect blood. They collect the purified blood liquid, known as plasma or serum, and return all the blood cells to the donor. Dr. David Hoover, scientific adviser at ClinicalRM, says giving people back those blood cells is a real advantage.

DAVID HOOVER: You can collect more plasma, and you can collect it more often than you can if you just use whole blood.

HARRIS: Ebola survivors can donate plasma twice a month. The idea here is that the blood plasma from survivors contains antibodies, which can recognize and destroy the Ebola virus. So a plasma transfusion can, in theory at least, help people fight off the disease. This strategy has worked for other illnesses, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about this approach for Ebola.

HOOVER: The question of how high the antibodies need to be and what kinds of antibodies need to be there is really, completely unknown at this point.

HARRIS: Scientists will save samples of serum from each donor so they can go back and answer those questions once they've found out whether the treatment works at all. And before they identify the people who can get this experimental treatment, the researchers need to find Ebola survivors willing to donate their serum. There are survivor groups who could be at the core of this donor population, but that's still an open question for this and other trials of blood products in West Africa. Johan van Griensven at the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine is running a second test of blood in blood plasma and his group has sent anthropologists out to identify these sensitivities in Guinea.

JOHAN VAN GRIENSVEN: So these assessments will be vital to understand the exempt ability of such a study and how we should proceed in a correct manner.

HARRIS: Ultimately, three teams of scientists are hoping to try serum transfusions in hundreds of patients throughout West Africa. David Wood at the World Health Organization says the long-term goal is to help rebuild medical systems that have been crippled by the Ebola epidemic.

DAVID WOOD: It's important that we try to get convalescent plasma here at all, but for the longer term, having a well-functioning blood transfusion system will have a broad range of benefits that go much beyond Ebola.

HARRIS: Blood and blood products are used to treat malaria, complicated childbirth and many other medical conditions, which will remain long after the Ebola outbreaks have been brought under control. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
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