During this time of crisis, it’s worth celebrating the individuals and organizations that have risen to the occasion by serving their communities. New York Blood Center Enterprises (NYBCe), for example, is one of the largest independent, community-based blood centers in the world. When New York City experienced a rapid increase in positive COVID-19 cases in early March 2020, NYBCe immediately recognized the need to stabilize their blood supply and prioritize the safety of their staff and donors. They created an inter-departmental task force to ensure all of their affiliates could continue their daily life-saving operations while simultaneously pivoting certain resources to join the fight against COVID-19.    

Most notably, they created a COVID-19 convalescent plasma (CCP) collection program in partnership with several local hospitals. Current research suggests that CCP may help patients with COVID-19 recover more quickly. Also, NYBCe formed the COVID-19 Research Repository (CRR) to increase the organization’s CCP inventory as well as conduct COVID-19 disease and vaccine research.

The CRR was conceptualized and led by the efforts of Dr. Christopher D. Hillyer, the President and CEO of NYBCe, and Dr. Larry Luchsinger. Dr. Luchsinger recently sat down with NYBCe representatives in order to discuss his work in more detail.

NYBCe: What is your title at NYBCe?
Dr. Luchsinger: I am an Assistant Member of the Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute and the Director of the NYBC Stem Cell Bank.

NYBCe: How long have you been with NYBCe?
Dr. Luchsinger: I’ve been with the organization for 1.5 years.

NYBCe: What was your main role at NYBCe pre-COVID?
Dr. Luchsinger: My research lab focuses on Hematopoietic stem cells (HSC), which reside in the bone marrow of adults, and have the ability to replenish all cell types found in the blood over an entire lifetime. In a treatment of last resort, patients with a condition known as hematological failure or malignancy currently receive bone marrow transplantation to regenerate the patient blood system with healthy cells. However, immunotolerance and donor accessibility make bone marrow transplants a high risk and potentially complicated treatment. We investigate the mechanisms to learn how to accelerate the stem cell expansion in the lab or improve clinical transplantation.

My lab also coordinates NYBC research efforts to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to establish a NYBC master cell bank. These cells have the potential to be used as a donor source for multiple types of tissues.

NYBCe: What is your main focus now that we’re in this unprecedented time?
Dr. Luchsinger: Since the pandemic, we have shifted our attention to research the interpretation of serology assays used, particularly with respect to convalescent plasma donors, to understand their significance in predicting antiviral activity and improve CP therapeutic strategy.

NYBCe: What kind of research are you conducting right now?
Dr. Luchsinger: We have completed a study correlating 7 different serological tests with neutralization assays that test the efficacy of antiviral antibodies in patient sera. This is the most robust test we have to predict immunity against future infection. We have also completed a study for the Rhode Island DOH to analyze COVID-19 antibodies present in the blood donor population.

NYBCe: What breakthroughs or interesting discoveries have you made throughout your COVID-19 research?
Dr. Luchsinger: We found that overall, most antibody tests can accurately predict if you have made antibodies against COVID-19. However, certain antibody tests that are performed in the clinic, but not the blood drop antibody test cassettes, are a good indicator as to the ability of each patient to prevent infection of SARS-CoV-2 in a laboratory setting. We are still researching whether everyone needs to produce antibodies, and if some people have a different immune response that does not need antibodies. If true, this would mean antibody tests are not capturing all of the individuals that may have been infected and are antibody negative.

We found that as of May, 0.6% of the Rhode Island blood donor population had COVID-19 antibodies. We also found that some tests were not predictive of antiviral activity and, therefore, certain antibody tests are much more informative at predicting meaningful antibody estimates of the population.

NYBCe: What area of your research are you most excited about?
Dr. Luchsinger: The immediacy of the COVID-19 has inspired the whole lab to work hard at getting answers to questions surrounding the pandemic in a timely manner. But we look forward to returning to cutting-edge research in the field of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine that will have important implications long after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

NYBCe: Does the pandemic pose any challenges for your research?
Dr. Luchsinger: We were fortunate to keep our lab operations open during the pandemic as we performed serological research, which kept our stem cell operations active at a minimal level. This helped us from having to shut down and restart the program, but we have lost several months of valuable time to the delay of effort towards these projects.

Stem cell transplant experiments take several months to analyze and often require years to replicate and determine statistical significance. We hope that funding of basic science research outside the realm of COVID-19 will not suffer from reallocation of limited resources to fight the pandemic, as it could spell years, or even decades, of delays to stem cell projects worldwide.

NYBCe relies on financial contributions to support basic scientific research, as Dr. Larry Luchsinger said, as well as maintain everyday operations and continue the fight against COVID-19. Monetary donations go to a variety of areas including COVID-19 research and antibody/serology testing, CCP collection, vaccine research and development. They also help NYBCe fund educational opportunities and scholarships.

There are multiple ways you can donate and support NYBCe during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, you can make contributions on a one-time or recurring basis or make a contribution on behalf of an organization or in memory of a loved one. You can also make a contribution online.

If you have a question related to fund development, contact the Office of Philanthropy. If you are interested in forming a research collaboration with NYBCe investigators like Dr. Luchsinger or procuring samples for your independent study, fill out a research inquiry form.