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GC Pharma, SK Plasma going global to offset blood shortage

Pharmas developing plasma-based drugs constantly face limited supply

A plasma-derived medical product is produced out of a yellow plasma tank. (SK Plasma)
A plasma-derived medical product is produced out of a yellow plasma tank. (SK Plasma)
GC Pharma and SK Plasma, the two South Korean companies that produce plasma-derived medical products, or PDMPs, are actively seeking overseas expansion to offset the limited blood supply in Korea.

For companies that use human blood, or more specifically plasma, procuring sufficient amounts is the toughest obstacle to business.

Blood can quite literally be turned into medicine once it is separated into its component parts.

The red fluid running through our blood vessels is actually 55 percent plasma -- that is, the liquid part of the blood, which carries the red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Because plasma is yellow, it is nicknamed “the gold that runs through the veins.”

The protein within the plasma can be filtered and processed into albumin, coagulation factors and immunoglobulin medicines that can treat several chronic life-threatening diseases such as immune deficiencies and hemophilia. The race and ethnicity of the donor are unimportant.

In Korea, GC Pharma and SK Plasma are the only two companies that produce PDMPs, with the former manufacturing 14 types of drugs and the latter seven.

The reason why there are only two PDMP companies in Korea has to do with the innate risk of blood shortages, and also the existence of other biological and chemical methods to produce drugs to treat the same illnesses.

Both GC Pharma and SK Plasma pool resources from the Korean Red Cross, the official body that collects blood donations from Koreans. All the plasma (as opposed to whole blood) donated to the Red Cross is sold to GC Pharma and SK Plasma.

The amount that can be bought from the Red Cross varies from year to year, and so does the price, said a GC Pharma official, who pointed out that unexpected factors -- such as the recent outbreak of a new coronavirus -- can affect the availability of plasma supplies within Korea.

The Korean Red Cross says an annual 3 million people must donate blood for Korea to maintain a self-sustaining blood bank system, but that the number almost always falls short.

Soldiers are the main source of donated blood as they are incentivized to give blood regularly during their approximately two-year mandatory terms of service, but the continued fall in Korea’s population is impacting the number of conscripts. This too is pushing companies to look overseas.

In January, GC Pharma opened its 12th blood bank in the US, increasing its supply capacity by 650,000 liters.

Under the guidelines of the World Health Organization, human parts are not tradable commodities and blood should not be sold. But in the US, each time a person “donates” blood, the bank rewards the donor with $30.

Unlike in Korea, where each blood donation yields 320-400 milliliters, the US takes around 800 milliliters per draw, and people can donate up to twice a week.

Blood from the US has particular merit, as PDMPs made from US blood have the US Food and Drug Administration’s clearance to be exported to numerous other countries around the world.

Given these characteristics, it is common for global PDMP companies to set up blood banks in the US.

GC Pharma has a million-liter plasma processing plant built in Montreal City, in the Canadian province of Quebec, which is awaiting the green light for commercial use.

The company envisions being able to produce its global exports at its Canadian facility starting next year or the year after.

Currently, GC Pharma operates a blood processing center in Ochang, North Chungcheong Province, which has a capacity of 1.4 million liters.

It also has a 300,000-liter facility in China, where it has four blood banks.

SK Plasma has no blood drawing centers abroad yet, but the company said it is reviewing potential locations.

Last year, SK Plasma signed memorandums of understanding with Indonesia and Brazil, agreeing to transfer plasma processing technology to Indonesia and export one of its final products to Brazil -- LIV-Gamma or immunoglobulin, a drug used to reduce the risk of infection in individuals with poorly functioning immune systems.

SK Plasma has a 600,000-liter manufacturing plant in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, where it processes plasma from some 1.2 million people.

The worldwide market for PDMPs is estimated to be 30 trillion won ($25 billion), with the North American market estimated at around 12 trillion won and the domestic market estimated at around 400 billion won.

Globally, some of the key players are CSL Behring of Australia, Switzerland-based Octapharma, US-based Baxter, and Spain-based Grifols and Shire, acquired by Takeda Pharmaceutical.

By Lim Jeong-yeo (