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UK boffins to breed syntho-blood from human embryos

As syntho-blood exec fakes terminal cancer

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Led by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, a team of British scientists is planning a three-year research project that seeks to fashion synthetic human blood from embryonic stem cells. It's a welcome announcement. The synthetic human blood biz needs a transfusion of its own.

Earlier this month, a former synthetic-blood executive admitted he pretended to have terminal cancer in an effort to sidestep a federal lawsuit over his company's Hemopure product, a blood substitute cooked up from cow hemoglobin.

As the BBC reports, the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service is backing a three-year trial meant to develop "O negative" blood cells from embryos originally harvested for in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments.

"O negative" is the universal donor. The hope is that the new trial will produce an unlimited supply of infection-free blood for human transfusions. According to Edinburgh University Professor Marc Turner, also the director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service, the trial will begin in the next few weeks.

A US outfit known as Advanced Cell Technology has already bred red blood cells from unused IVF embryos. But Turner and his fellow researches hope to do so on a much larger scale. "We should have proof of principle in the next few years, but a realistic treatment is probably five to 10 years away," he told the Beeb. "In principle, we could provide an unlimited supply of blood in this way."

Meanwhile, the AP reports, ex-synthetic-blood exec Howard Richman has admitted he posed as a cancer patient while he and his former company, Biopure, faced a lawsuit from the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The 2005 suit claimed that Biopure, Richman, and other company execs failed to tell investors that the US Food and Drug Administration had rejected clinical trials of its bovine-based blood substitute.

During a hearing in US District Court on March 11, the 57-year-old pleaded guilty to charges that he fooled his legal team into thinking he had Stage 3 colorectal cancer. At one point, Richman admitted, he impersonated a doctor in a phone call to one of his lawyers, claiming that spreading cancer meant he was unable to stand the stress of a lawsuit.

In October 2006, Richman's lawyers told the court that because of a cancer diagnosis, he stood a 15 per cent chance of survival. Then, after his lawyers claimed the cancer had spread, Judge Patti Saris agreed to postpone the trial final judgment - i.e., she all but ended the case.

Richman's lawyers eventually resigned, and in late 2007 a new lawyer told the court that the cancer bit was a put-on. Last summer, the ex-Biopure exec agreed to pay the SEC a $150,000 fine, and after this month's obstruction of justice guilty plea, he faces up to ten years in prison.

Shades then of Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness chief exec who was released from a five-year prison sentence after he was diagnosed with pre-senile dementia related to Alzheimer's disease. Saunders soon recovered from his symptoms, blaming them on a prescribed "cocktail of tranquilisers and sleeping tablets."

Or perhaps the analogy is less than precise. Saunders got out of prison. Richman is likely going in. ®

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