Dr. John Stanifer, Nephrologist at Munson, is bringing a life-changing procedure called plasmapheresis to Northern Michigan. For patients battling cancer and autoimmune disorders, the applications for plasmapheresis can be a game-changer.

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When Interlochen’s Trish Marek arrived at Munson Medical Center’s Emergency Department last fall, she was seriously ill—a diagnosis of pancreatitis and high triglyceride levels. She was quickly admitted and treated, but her levels wouldn’t come down.

But, thanks to a newly offered treatment option at Munson, Marek was able to be the first patient to receive a life-changing procedure called plasmapheresis.

With the recent arrival of nephrologist Dr. John Stanifer, previously a faculty member at Duke University, plasmapheresis became a local treatment option. His specialized experience, and the cooperation of the nurses and dialysis staff, allowed him to leverage preexisting equipment and expertise to offer this extracorporeal treatment, which is similar to dialysis. With plasmapheresis, the patient is connected to a machine that filters the blood in a very specific manner to remove particular particles, cells, proteins or antibodies from the blood based on the type of filter used.

For Trish Marek, it paid off: after three treatments and 22 days, her levels dropped so significantly she was able to be released from the hospital.

Although plasmapheresis is available in other hospitals around the state, the travel and frequency required for successful treatment can be an exhausting or expensive barrier for many patients who may miss out on the benefit it provides and opt for more widely available treatments instead. It wasn’t until Dr. Stanifer joined the staff that the program became a possibility locally.

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The applications for plasmapheresis can be game-changers for patients battling all kinds of diseases, including autoimmune disorders and cancers like multiple myeloma.

“The idea is if you have an active disease, such as an autoimmune with immunoglobulins attacking the body, we will treat that disease with immunosuppression treatments such as chemotherapy,” Dr. Stanifer explains. “But those treatments take time to reduce the level of disease-causing agents in the blood. So, we use plasmapheresis to remove them in about an hour and a half. This stops the damage and serves as a bridge treatment until things like chemotherapy have time to kick in.”

The therapy is used most in neurological conditions, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes antibodies to attack the nerves and cause acute paralysis. “We can reduce those damage-causing antibodies by as much as 60 to 70 percent,” Dr. Stanifer says. “If you do that multiple times, you deplete the circulating pathogens or antibodies down to undetectable levels in a few days.” However, the body will continue to make them, which is why recurring treatment and/or chemotherapy remains crucial.

“When I came in 2019, we’d often see patients where this was a therapy that would be beneficial, and the patients would invariably have to be transferred to Grand Rapids,” Dr. Stanifer says. “Once they leave our system, there’s a lack of continuity of care. So that was a major motivation to do it; we had the expertise and we had the need.”

For Marek, the procedure targeted her triglycerides and bilirubin. Three treatments brought her levels to a place where she could be safely discharged from the hospital. “Just the comfort of knowing that my family didn’t have to uproot and leave their jobs to be with me, that was huge,” she says. “Knowing that I am paving the way for others to be able to have this procedure done in Northern Michigan warms my heart, understanding it will ease some frustration for other families as well.”

Photo(s) by Michael Poehlman