How Doctors Fought Spanish Flu, Measles Using Plasma From Recovered Patients

In 1934, a doctor at a private boys’ school in Pennsylvania tried a unique method to ward off a potentially fatal measles epidemic. Dr. J. Roswell Gallagher extracted blood serum from a student who had recently recovered from a serious measles infection and began injecting plasma into 62 other boys who were at high risk of getting the disease.

Only three students eventually contracted measles and all were mild cases.

The method, although relatively new, was not new to science. In fact, the very first Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded in 1901 to Emil von Behring for his life-saving work in the development of a remedy for diphtheria, a particularly fatal bacterial infection in children. Its revolutionary treatment, known as diphtheria antitoxin, worked by injecting sick patients with antibodies taken from animals that had recovered from the disease.

READ MORE: Pandemics that have changed history

How convalescent plasma therapy works

German Nobel Prize winning bacteriologist and physiologist Emil Adolf von Behring, right, uses a syringe to inject a guinea pig held by a laboratory assistant, circa 1890.

Von Behring’s anti-toxin was not a vaccine, but the first example of a treatment method called “convalescent plasma” that has come back to life as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Convalescent plasma is blood plasma extracted from an animal or human patient who is “recovering” or who has recovered from an infection with a particular disease.

“Convalescent plasma has been used throughout history to cope with an infectious disease where people recover and there is no other therapy available,” says Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes. “There must be something in their plasma, that is. an antibody – which helped them recover. “


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