U.S. gets jump on mad cow: Canadian firm joins American Red Cross in blood screening

U.S. gets jump on mad cow:
Canadian firm joins American Red Cross in blood screening

July 4, 2001 The Ottawa Citizen by Matthew Sekeres

A Canadian pharmaceutical company has partnered with the American Red Cross to eventually screen the U.S. blood supply for the agents causing the human form of mad cow disease.

Yesterday, Prometic Life Services Inc. of Montreal announced the formation of a new firm, tentatively called Advanced Removal Detection Technologies, that will make the technology to extract pathogens from blood available to blood donor agencies. The aim is to remove abnormal prions, believed to cause the human form of mad cow disease, before they ever reach the blood supply.

"Safety is our number one priority and (the human form of mad cow disease) we saw as a potential emerging threat," said Chris Lamb, chief operating officer of the ARC's plasma services.

The ARC has committed to making the removal process mandatory after it receives regulatory approval and after the joint company becomes official in late September.

"The American Red Cross has decided to take it into their own hands because of the seriousness of (mad cow disease)," Pierre Laurin, Prometic's president and chief executive. "Quite frankly, it is remarkable that steps forward are being taken in America when the actual crisis is in Europe."

Prometic was approached by the ARC because it owns unique technology -- namely small cartridges, no bigger than a quarter, that collect abnormal prions when blood is filtered through. The firm has been using similar cartridges to extract proteins for research purposes.

"What we've done is designed those (cartridges) to target the nasty prions," said Mr. Laurin. "The blood passes through the filters, the prions stick to the cartridge and you have a prion-free blood unit."

Prions are protein molecules. When they fold into abnormal shapes -- a mysterious process scientists cannot explain -- they become infectious and are believed to cause diseases like mad cow and its human form, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

There have been no documented cases of VCJD in North America. The disease is a fatal neurological disorder that has affected more than 100 people in Europe, mostly in Britain. Scientists are unclear as to whether VCJD can be transmitted by blood and it is viewed as potential contaminant to blood supplies until proved otherwise.

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