The Amazing Journey of Plasma
From donation to distribution
Precious and irreplaceable, plasma is essential for life. Numerous milestones mark the journey of this protein-rich liquid, from its collection by apheresis, through its fractionation for use in the manufacture of drugs, to its administration to a seriously ill patient. The travel journal below traces the route taken by plasma, from donation to distribution.
Step 1: Donating
Plasma is the liquid part of blood. Pale yellow in colour, it contains many vital components. Héma-Québec is responsible for collecting plasma in Québec. Plasma can be collected in two ways: through a whole blood donation or through a plasma donation. In the former case, blood is collected and then separated into its different components (plasma, platelets and red blood cells) in the laboratory. The amount of plasma collected during a blood donation is somewhat limited. The most effective and optimal way to collect plasma is through a plasma donation that uses a technique called “apheresis”.
Plasma donations by apheresis are made in GLOBULE and PLASMAVIE centres. Apheresis allows blood to pass through a device that collects only the plasma and returns the other blood components to the donor. This technique makes it possible to collect two to three times more plasma than through a whole blood donation. And since plasma regenerates quickly, it can be donated safety every six days!
Plasma transfused vs. plasma processed
Plasma can be used two ways. It can be transfused directly into patients to treat severe hemorrhaging or serious burns, for example. It can also be processed to manufacture vitally important specialty drugs, called “plasma products”. The latter requires large quantities of plasma.
Step 2: Freezing
Whether transfused or processed into drugs, plasma is quick frozen after collection. The quicker it is frozen, the more its essential proteins are preserved.
Step 3: Testing
Each plasma donation is tested by the product qualification laboratory to screen for the presence of infections and blood-borne diseases. Compliant plasma takes a new step forward toward fractionation.
Step 4: Processing (fractionation)
Most plasma is sent to high-tech plasma fractionation plants to be processed into plasma products. These plants, located overseas, extract the proteins (immunoglobulins, albumin and clotting factors) from the plasma and use these in the manufacture of specialty drugs.
Immunoglobulins are the proteins extracted from plasma that are most used in Québec. Also known as antibodies, immunoglobulins are part of the body’s immune system and help fight bacteria and viruses. They can be used, therefore, to treat patients who are immunocompromised (unable to produce their own antibodies) or have certain neurological or other autoimmune disorders.
Albumin is a protein found in greater quantity in plasma. It is especially effective in the treatment of patients with serious burns and accident victims.
Clotting factors are proteins used to treat clotting disorders in patients with hemophilia.
The fractionation process
Several donations (approximately 8,000) from different donors are pooled together to extract the proteins from the plasma. This mixture is then subjected to varying temperatures, different pH conditions and concentrations of alcohol and water. This recipe isolates a particular type of protein that is then treated with heat, filters or chemicals to eliminate viruses and potential pathogens. The end products are tested to ensure that they meet the highest quality standards. This manufacturing process can take up to 12 months!
Step 5: Returning products to Héma-Québec
The finished products are returned to Héma-Québec, the exclusive supplier of plasma products for the province. All plasma donations collected in Québec are used to manufacture products intended for Quebecers.
Step 6: Distributing products to hospitals
Héma-Québec delivers more than 500,0001 plasma products to hospitals each year. To meet the needs of Québec patients, Héma-Québec distributes some 50 different products. The four most important of these are manufactured from plasma collected in the GLOBULE and PLASMAVIE centres.
Donating plasma to help Quebecers
While Québec is able to meet the need for blood and plasma for transfusions, the story is different for the plasma required to manufacture drugs, such as immunoglobulins. The need for plasma products continues to grow, but donations here at home are insufficient to meet demand. Héma-Québec must, therefore, buy plasma products made from plasma collected primarily in the United States to meet the needs of Quebecers.
The solution to this major challenge lies with generous donors who are willing to share their health by donating plasma in one of Héma-Québec’s GLOBULE or PLASMAVIE centres.
Want to join them? Find the plasma donor centre nearest you.