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ProMetic Life Sciences Inc. is expected to announce today a ground-breaking joint venture with the American Red Cross to hasten removal of deadly pathogens and certain viruses from collected blood.

The new joint venture company, which will be 26 per cent owned by Montreal-based ProMetic and 74 per cent by the Red Cross, will initially develop detection and removal systems for three infectious agents, ProMetic president and chief executive officer Pierre Laurin said in an interview.

"The Red Cross views contaminated blood as its No. 1 threat," he said, adding that the joint venture is "giving top priority to prion removal.

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"Prions will be either a bad dream or the next plague."

Prions are rogue proteins that form plaque in the brain, causing fatal degenerative disorders such as mad-cow disease and the version humans can catch, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

There are no known cases of the disease being transmitted by blood transfusions, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But ProMetic said animal models suggest that transmission by blood products is possible.

Other contaminants that the joint venture is targeting for removal from blood are hepatitis A, which can cause liver inflammation, and parvovirus B19, which can cause certain autoimmune diseases such as arthritis.

"There are no systems available now to remove any of these things from the blood supply," said Claude Camiré, an analyst with Dundee Securities Inc. based in Montreal.

"This will be a huge deal for ProMetic," he predicted.

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"The technology has many uses. Everything from testing for food contamination to the components of blood plasma will be able to use this technology."

The joint venture will use ProMetic's ligand technology with the Red Cross's expertise in removing pathogens such as HIV from blood.

Ligands are small molecules that ProMetic designs to distinguish and bind with specific proteins.

The company already sells its ligand technology to a number of pharmaceutical companies that use it to extract and purify therapeutic proteins for use in human clinical trials and in drug products.

In the joint venture with the Red Cross, the ligand technology will be used for the first time to remove unwanted pathogens, Mr. Laurin said.

"This is a very significant milestone for ProMetic because it validates our credibility," he said. "I can assure you that if this technology existed in the United States, the Red Cross would have signed with an American company."

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Mr. Laurin said the joint venture is conservatively estimating that prion removal, for example, would cost $10 to $15 (U.S.) for each of the 14 million units of blood collected annually in the United States.

ProMetic and the Red Cross are aiming to have the prion removal system on the market within two years.

The device will likely require some form of validation and approval by the FDA.

Mr. Camiré said the American Red Cross "has the muscle to sell this process to blood banks around the world."

Last Thursday, ProMetic reported a yearly loss of $8.4-million (Canadian) or 14 cents a share on revenue of $2.5-million, reflecting higher research and development spending.

ProMetic shares closed at $2.19, up 6 cents, on the Toronto Stock Exchange Friday.

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Mr. Laurin said ProMetic opted for an equity stake in a joint venture rather than royalties from sales in order to establish a "base for future revenues with a strong partner."

He predicted the company would be profitable within 1½ to two years.

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