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UPMC touts virus therapy

Monoclonal antibody treatment can save high-risk patients, health experts say

Vaccinations will mean eventual salvation from COVID-19, but until then, there’s a treatment that can keep the disease at bay after high-risk people test positive, if administered soon enough, according to UPMC officials.

Monoclonal antibody therapy can save lives, said Dr. David Burwell, chief quality officer at UPMC Altoona, where the treatment is available.

“It’s not so well known,” Burwell said Wednesday. “But it should be.”

Former President Donald Trump received the therapy in the fall, recovering nicely, Burwell noted.

Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the body’s immune system by attaching to the spike protein on the coronavirus, blocking it from penetrating body cells, where the virus would otherwise multiply and cause havoc.

Starting in December, UPMC Altoona has administered the one-time, one-hour intravenous infusions to about 100 patients, according to Kevin Pruzak, nurse manager for the unit.

Treatments must be given within nine days of the onset of symptoms, according to Burwell.

They’re designed to head off a worsening of the disease, so patients don’t need to be hospitalized.

Of the 100 treated in Altoona so far, only one has needed hospitalization, Pruzak said — although he declined to say what was the ultimate outcome.

The treatments are only given to patients with mild to moderate symptoms, but with a high risk of severe sickness, according to a UPMC news release that cites the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization for the therapy.

It’s suitable for people who are at least 65; who have a body mass index over 35; who have chronic kidney disease or diabetes; who have an immunosuppressive disease like cancer; who are receiving immunosuppressive treatments; who are at least 55 with heart disease, high blood pressure or chronic respiratory disease; or who are 12-17 with body mass index over the 85th percentile or sickle cell disease, heart disease, neurodevelopmental disorder, asthma, chronic respiratory disease or a condition requiring a medical intervention like a tracheostomy or gastrostomy, according to a UPMC publication.

Patients must be at least 12 and weigh at least 88 pounds.

Kim Wright of Altoona, an RN at UPMC Altoona, was the local clinic’s first patient.

She has had colon cancer, which was treated with chemotherapy and radiation last year; she has diabetes and asthma, and she has been overweight, she said.

She caught COVID-19 in December.

Burwell, her primary care doctor, recommended the therapy and explained how it worked. She learned that her case could turn bad, and that if it did, it would be dangerous for her, she said.

“Being in the medical field, knowing it was all brand-new, it was kind of scary at first,” she said.

But the staff at the infusion center in Building G on Howard Avenue — the distinctive green structure near Fourth Street — was supportive and encouraging, she said.

“They kept me talking and distracted,” she said.

The staff wear full protective gear, including a battery-operated fan that circulates filtered air inside their headpieces.

A therapy session takes a total of three hours, including preparation and observation afterward.

Prior to the infusion, COVID-19 had taken Wright’s sense of taste and smell and had inflicted body aches, a fever and congestion.

She got the therapy on the eighth day after symptoms began.

It wasn’t long afterward that her taste improved, she said.

The main thing is, “I didn’t get worse,” she said.

Another patient that received the therapy had a burning in the chest and a temperature of 103 degrees, Pruzak said.

The next day, the burning was gone and the patient’s temperature was 99.7, he said.

Still, there’s no way to know for sure that the therapy was the cause of those improvements in any particular case, Pruzak said.

Many patents in the Altoona clinic have had cancer and lung disease, said RN Brittany Whalen.

One was a hemophiliac and one a heart transplant recipient, according to Whalen.

Only one patient had to be hospitalized for COVID-19 after treatment, and that patient had the therapy on Day 10, Pruzak said.

“The sooner you get it in you, the better,” Pruzak said.

There have been no bad reactions, Pruzak said, knocking on a nearby table.

UPMC’s experts in Pittsburgh must sign off on all patients proposed for therapy, according to Pruzak.

People can get an order for the therapy from their primary care doctors, he said. They can also seek the treatment through the UPMC AnywhereCare app. Patients and providers also can call 866-804-5251 for help, according to the UPMC website.

UPMC is using a medication from Eli Lilly and Co. and one from Regeneron, along with a combination of the two.

The organization is conducting a randomized study on the treatment, with each patient receiving the formula that the study protocol dictates.

UPMC is trying to promote the treatment.

“This is a key stopgap,” as vaccinations take hold in society, Burwell said.

“It may not be a need for the long term,” the doctor said. “But it’s definitely a need for the short term.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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