Along with athletes, trainers, and spectators, the Bay Area is sending medical technology to Brazil for the Olympic Games.
Cerus, a Concord-based biotech company, donated blood sterilization technology to a major blood bank in Rio de Janeiro.
Cerus' technology uses a chemical reagent and UVA light to kill pathogens in blood.
"Basically, blood is collected in bags. We have a system that uses a small molecule, a photo-chemical. And so you put the small molecule in there and you illuminate the bag and that's what zaps the bugs," said Cerus President and CEO Obi Greenman.
By "bugs" he means bacteria like syphilis, protozoans like malaria and viruses like Zika, which has been linked to microcephaly in infants born to women infected by the mosquito-born disease.
And by "zap," he means that Cerus's photo-chemical process disrupts the ability of disease-causing microorganisms to reproduce by blocking the replication of DNA and RNA.
The Intercept system has been approved for treating plasma and platelets in Brazil, the U.S. and across Europe.
At Cerus's R&D lab in Concord, researchers are hard at work on perfecting the process to treat red blood cells.
Company founder Larry Corash developed the technology in the mid-80s as a response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, when hundreds of people contracted HIV after receiving tainted blood.
As he and a technician demonstrated the kits, Corash reminisced about how he and colleagues at UC-San Francisco built the first prototype 25 years ago with parts from Cole Hardware.
Back then, it took eight hours to decontaminate a unit of platelets, he said. Now it only takes four minutes, and the process of adding the photo-chemicals through a series of bags and tubes is simple enough that technicians can be trained quickly in response to a new blood-born pathogen.
Cerus recently set up its technology in Puerto Rico following the Zika outbreak there. Corash brags that Cerus trained key blood bank employees over the course of only one weekend.
HEMORIO, which is the designated blood bank for the Games, wanted to assure Olympic athletes that they won't get Zika from a blood transfusion in Rio. But bureaucracy and funding held up the purchase of the necessary technology, Greenman said.
"What we realized with the Olympics and just the overall Zika epidemic in Brazil was that they needed some way to safeguard their blood supply because they didn't have any available tests," Greenman said.
Cerus's donation of 1,350 Intercept kits is more than enough for the Olympics, and gives the company a key foothold in the market.
"We believe that this system ultimately will be commercially viable in Brazil. But we decided that it was strategically helpful to kickstart things there," Corash said. "Brazil is epidemic not only for Zika but also for Dengue and Chikungunya so they have a very severe problem."
With blood transfusions a key tool for medical treatment, and globalization increasing the speed that new pathogens travel across borders, Greenman says his company's technology is needed more than ever.
"Especially when new pathogens come into the blood supply. We won't have to do these fire-drills like we're doing for Zika right now," he said.