Dartmouth-Hitchcock studies examine keys to surviving COVID-19

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2020 9:43:06 PM
Modified: 5/7/2020 9:42:55 PM

LEBANON — Starting Friday, Mary Maxfield, a retired Lebanon High School biology teacher, is going to take a turn as a guinea pig.

Following her recovery from COVID-19 in late March, the 65-year-old Maxfield has enrolled in two studies at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

The first will, through blood samples, examine her immune response to the novel coronavirus.

The second will take samples of Maxfield’s DNA in an effort to understand if genetics contribute to whether individuals develop serious or mild symptoms from the disease. Maxfield’s symptoms were mild and included a dry cough and a low-grade fever.

“I love the idea of being in studies,” Maxfield said in a Thursday afternoon Zoom meeting on the subject of clinical trial research in the Upper Valley related to COVID-19. “I like the idea of being a data point.”

The event, which was part of a series of programs called Health Research Live, was hosted by the Dartmouth SYNERGY Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, Montshire Museum of Science and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Population Health.

Through the studies Maxfield is participating in and others, D-H researchers are working to better understand the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, while also working to develop treatments.

D-H is also participating in a trial of the antiviral medication remdesivir, which has shown early promise in helping to prevent COVID-19 from progressing. Last week, the Federal Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of remdesivir to treat patients with severe COVID-19, even though it has not gone through the usual medication approval process.

The health system announced earlier this week that it also is participating in a trial, in conjunction with the Mayo Clinic and with support from the FDA and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, to examine whether plasma harvested from recovered patients can be used to treat patients currently experiencing severe symptoms.

Data collected so far from the Mayo Clinic indicates that patients improve after receiving a single 200 mL dose of plasma from a recovered person. But more study is needed, working with recovered patients like Maxfield, to ensure the process is safe and to sort out the best dosage.

“Reports suggest that treatment using convalescent plasma, which likely contains SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, could be a viable and safe option that may alter the course of COVID-19 in patients with severe disease and few alternatives,” Dr. Richard Zuckerman, a D-H infectious disease specialist and one of the study’s principal investigators, said in a news release this week.

Zuckerman was one of two D-H physicians who spoke during Thursday’s Zoom event.

In the Zoom call, Zuckerman said that scientists are being asked to find treatments in a very short time frame, but he emphasized that it’s important that they do so while continuing to practice ethical “sound science.”

Dr. David de Gijsel, another D-H infectious disease doctor, talked about the challenges of developing effective antibody tests. There remains “a lot of uncertainty around the immune response,” which makes it difficult to develop a reliable test, he said.

De Gijsel said some of the questions researchers are looking to answer include “Do we all make antibodies when we get sick?” and why is it that young people appear to be less vulnerable to COVID-19.

Researchers don’t yet know exactly why people like Maxfield can escape serious symptoms, while some others become so sick they need mechanical assistance breathing, and others die from COVID-19.

About 1.2 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and more than 73,000 have died from it as of Thursday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s also unclear to what extent being infected once might protect Maxfield and others like her from the disease in the future.

Maxfield, a Lebanon resident, had hoped that after she recovered she could be “freed up” to volunteer in the community, doing things like delivering Meals on Wheels or helping out at the Upper Valley Haven. But without answers to questions about whether she would be protected in the future or whether she might infect others asymptomatically, she is still following general stay-at-home directives and practicing social distancing.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about everything,” she said.

By participating in the research, Maxfield hopes to contribute to a better understanding of the disease that has caused so much suffering and chaos around the world, as well as to satisfy her own curiosity.

“I would love to indulge a little bit in asking people some questions as I’m donating plasma,” she said.

People who have recovered from COVID-19 and are over 18 and want to be evaluated for a plasma donation can call 603-653-3775 or email DHMC.Blood.Program@hitchcock.org. Donors who have been confirmed from testing to have had COVID-19 or had a presumptive diagnosis of COVID-19 from a physician will be eligible to donate after they have been symptom-free for at least 28 days.

The Red Cross also is seeking plasma donations from recovered COVID-19 patients. More information is at redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/dlp/plasma-donations-from-recovered-covid-19-patients.html.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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