PHOTO/RENOWN HEALTH: Thomas Gibson, a COVID-19 survivor from Texas, came to Reno last year to donate blood plasma for Austin Meegan, who has a rare blood type. Meegan was in the hospital fighting severe COVID-19 complications for weeks. Gibson's plasma donation helped save Meegan’s life, doctors said.

When Austin Meegan, 24, was in the hospital last year staving off organ failure caused by COVID-19, doctors worried that they wouldn’t be able to find a donor who had both survived the virus and had the rare blood Meegan needed for blood plasma treatment.

Enter Thomas Gibson, a COVID-19 survivor from Texas who has the same blood type as Megan. Gibson traveled to Reno to donate his viral antibodies. His plasma donation helped save Meegan’s life, doctors said.

Convalescent plasma was in high demand, but was difficult to obtain for Northern Nevada COVID-19 patients.  Since then, clinical researchers embarked on a study to help other patients like Meegan, and more than 100 local volunteers responded to donate blood plasma. The research teams sought to understand how the body’s immune system responds to the virus over time to aid them in developing new treatments for COVID-19.

A finger stick and a blood draw

On the heels of that success, the research team is now asking area residents to participate in a study to analyze the efficacy of two COVID-19 tests. Participants will undergo two blood tests: one being a finger stick to provide results for a rapid test, and the other is a traditional veni-puncture draw confirming the presence or absence of COVID-19 antibodies.

The testing study, led by researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, Medical School and Renown Health Center is a collaboration with InBios International, Inc., a leading biotechnology company based in Seattle.

Convalescent plasma is the component of the blood from recovered patients that may contain COVID-19 antibodies that help fight the infection. The National Institutes of Health has since developed treatment guidelines for COVID-19 based on clinical trial data and many studies are still underway worldwide assessing various additional treatment options.

For the testing study, researchers are seeking:

1)    Individuals who have confirmed positive for COVID-19 and who have recently recovered from the virus. Study participants must be within 7-28 days from the onset of their symptoms;

2)    Individuals who have recently tested negative for COVID-19 and have never tested positive, but who haven’t yet received a COVID-19 vaccination.

Those who are interested in participating in the study may contact project coordinators at the Renown Research Office at (775) 982-3646, or via e-mail at, 7:30 a.m.  to 5 p.m. , Monday through Friday.

The ‘right test at the right time’

“The control of COVID-19 in our communities relies on testing,” said Dr. Mark Riddle, associate investigator of the study and associate dean for clinical research and professor at the medical school’s  Department of Internal Medicine and Medical Research.

Dr. Mark Riddle

“The study that is being launched to develop a sensitive, specific and easier way to collect (blood) specimens is advancing the field and brings promise towards getting to our common goal of having the right diagnostic test for the right clinical situation at the right time.”

In the previous plasma studies, Renown, UNR Medical School and other area health care partners collaborated with Vitalant to collect plasma from recovered donors for a study on the treatment’s efficacy. Eligible donors had fully recovered from a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19.

Previous study drew volunteers

Project coordinators at the Renown Research Office said they were overwhelmed by the community’s support and plasma donations. Additional partnerships with the Washoe County Health District, the State of Nevada and the Governor’s office, Saint Mary’s Medical Center, Northern Nevada Medical Center, Carson Tahoe Health and the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System, along with many area health care providers helped the team meet their goals of enrolling 120 eligible participants in that study.

“Our success in this (new testing) study rests heavily on the support of our great community, as well as the innovation and collaboration demonstrated by Renown and UNR Med,” said Dr. Sara Healy, principal investigator of the study and a pediatric infectious disease physician at Renown Children’s Hospital and UNR Med. “We are proud to be at the forefront of conducting essential research during such a pivotal time in history.”

The clinical research translates into helping COVID-19 patients survive the illness.

From labs to patients

“The world’s capacity to get through the COVID crisis will depend on four things — science, technology, innovation and partnerships, said Dr. Tony Slonim, president and CEO of Renown Health.  “Taking lab bench discoveries to the bedside of patients in an efficacious and timely manner is not easy, but with UNR Med and our partners, we are making great strides in advancing clinical research which has the power to save lives and to create a healthier Nevada.”

The ongoing convalescent plasma therapy study is run by the Mayo Clinic. Plasma is one weapon in the arsenal used to fight COVID-19. Because it is one of many treatments, its overall effectiveness remains unknown, but it is believed to be valuable in countering the severe effects of infection.

A matter of time

Individuals aged 18-75 in general good health are encouraged to consider volunteering for the testing  study. There is no cost to participate. An individual’s decision to participate will not affect their current or future relations with their health care provider(s), health district, or the community. Those who decide to participate are free to withdraw at any time, researchers said.

“Time is of the essence with COVID. If we can get test results to people and their clinicians in a more timely way, we can make a faster diagnosis of a patient’s condition, said Dr. Christopher M. Kozlowski, Renown’s institutional research officer and medical director of Renown Institute for Heart & Vascular Health. “As we refine the accuracy of our testing; we are applying sensitivity and specificity testing for true negative and true positive results. This provides people with more timely and accurate results and better quality care.”

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