Blood Cleansing Agents Could Ease Fears, Boost a $1 Billion Market
Threats of new viruses that may contaminate the entire blood supply have "set off a race to come up with chemical agents to filter out everything in the blood but red cells, platelets and plasma," Forbes reports. Before the Red Cross began screening donor blood for HIV in 1985, 9,000 Americans were infected with the virus via blood transfusions. But in the 60 million transfusions since, only 41 people have been infected with HIV. The risk of HIV infection from the blood supply is down to one in 1.3 million units of blood. But "intruders" still evade screening, and unknown megaviruses, bacteria and parasites may pass through the blood supply undetected. Thus far two public companies, Cerus of Concord, Calif., and V.I.Technologies, known as Vitex, of Watertown, Mass., are the "leading contenders" in a potentially profitable business opportunity to provide "absolutely 'clean' blood." Both firms have created products that are undergoing clinical trials and due out in the United States in two years. Inactine, Vitex's experimental cleanser, is a colorless fluid that binds to viral DNA and RNA and requires 24 hours to purify a unit of red cells. DNA and RNA are present in any virus or pathogen that enters the blood, but are absent from red cells, plasma and platelets. In early-stage clinical trials, Vitex's agents have killed every pathogen in a unit of blood to the limits of detection, and the firm is now testing the treated blood in humans to determine if the clean blood is as safe as regular blood. Cerus manufactures Intercept, a substance containing psoralens that stop the replication of DNA and RNA and work well on translucent platelets and plasma. The company's plasma and platelet products have successfully killed all detectable pathogens in a series of studies over the past five years. Such cleansing is costly, however; inactivating viruses may add $50 to $100 per unit of blood, and insurers may not be willing to cover double the current cost of blood transfusion. But Medicare "has already set a precedent" by paying $150 per unit for PLAS+SD, Vitex's virally inactivated plasma (Schoenberger, Forbes, 3/19).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.