Feature Story

Plasma Donors Save Lives

Joe Van Ess, a long-time plasma donor in Grandville, Michigan, is one of many individuals around the United States who have made the unselfish commitment to donate their healthy plasma to help save lives.

"I'm proud that my plasma is turned into medicine that helps people deal with life-threatening conditions," said Joe.

PPTAEvery year, more than 22 million liters of plasma are used to produce life-saving medicines, which more than one million people receive around the world.  Baxter works closely with the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, or PPTA, to raise awareness of the importance of plasma donation to support a growing, global need for plasma-derived therapies. Baxter's approximately 60 BioLife Plasma centers in the United States support thousands of donors every year. 

Plasma is the pale yellow liquid portion of the blood (about 50% of whole blood), which functions as an aid in the circulation of red and white blood cells and platelets. It's collected through a process called plasmapheresis, during which whole blood is withdrawn from a healthy donor. Using an automated machine, the plasma is retained and other whole blood components, such as red blood cells and platelets, are returned back to the donor. The process takes about 45 minutes and about 600-800 milliliters of plasma are obtained during each donation.

For donors, the process is a low-risk procedure with minimal or no side effects. For Joe, it's fairly simple. "Once I learned the process was easy, I was happy to donate. I'm not very afraid of needles and I know my plasma is used for important reasons," he commented.

Once plasma is collected, samples for each donation are sent to a laboratory to be tested for indicators of viral infections including hepatitis and HIV. 

Plasma is then processed into a wide variety of life-saving therapeutics. Hundreds of different proteins have been found in human plasma. Companies like Baxter use specialized equipment to separate a number of these proteins from which they can make a range of life-saving medicines: 

  • One of the most common uses for human plasma is to develop therapies based on the antibodies in plasma that help support the body's immune reaction. People suffering from immune disorders, such as primary immunodeficiency, cannot make sufficient antibodies and rely on immunoglobulin treatment to manage their condition.
  • A protein found in plasma called albumin is widely used in the treatment of shock, burns, adult respiratory distress syndrome and during cardiopulmonary bypass surgery. Human albumin replacement can speed recovery and increase survival in critical care patients.  Albumin therapy is credited with saving countless lives of soldiers wounded in battles since World War II, and continues to help wounded soldiers fighting today.
  • The Alpha-1 antitrypsin protein is found in the lungs.  A deficiency of this protein, known as Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, can lead to damage in the lungs (emphysema) and in the liver, and administration of this therapy prevents further damage.
  • Other therapies derived from human plasma include Factors VIII and IX and von Willebrand Factor (VWF), modern medications that help those with blood clotting disorders such as hemophilia.

Unlike donating blood, which many people do only once or very infrequently, donors often give plasma on a regular basis.

Joe, for one, donates more than once a week, depending on his schedule. "I enjoy the time I spend at my local center. I can do it during my lunch hour and enjoy talking to the BioLife staff and other donors."

This is critical, since it takes around 130 plasma donations to manufacture enough therapy to keep one patient with primary immunodeficiency healthy for one year. 

And today, demand is growing for plasma-based therapies. Access to proper care continues to improve around the world and more people are properly diagnosed with chronic conditions thanks to raised awareness and education. The need for healthy plasma donors is greater than at any other time in history.

Unlike many other areas of medicine, plasma used for these critical therapies can only be obtained from healthy adults it cannot be produced in a laboratory or via other synthetic means. Simply, plasma donors can help save lives.

Donors have varying reasons to participate in these programs, including the gratification of knowing they are helping others and the opportunity to connect with friends and acquaintances in their communities.  In addition, donors are compensated for their time and commitment to the program.
For Joe, it's about the patients he knows he's helping. "One day, you may find yourself in a situation where a plasma-based treatment will save your life."

Interested in becoming a plasma donor?
To be eligible to donate plasma, a person must be at least 18 years of age or older, weigh at least 110 pounds (50kg), be in good health, and meet proper identification and residency requirements.  Donors also undergo a medical evaluation. To ensure plasma-based therapies are of the highest possible quality, international organizations have established strict donor eligibility requirements that are followed by centers in the United States, Europe and Canada. More details on donation eligibility can be found online at www.biolifeplasma.com or www.donatingplasma.org.