Common bacterium "linked to BSE, vCJD and MS"

November 15, 2001 The New Scientist
A common soil bacterium often found lurking under fingernails could be the root cause of "mad cow disease", its human variant vCJD, and multiple sclerosis (MS), according to a controversial new study.

Professor Alan Ebringer and a team from King's College, London, say that the bacterium acinetobacter has similar characteristics to nerve and brain cells, and could fool the immune system into attacking its own body, causing BSE - mad cow disease - in cows and vCJD or MS in humans.

However, the findings have been greeted with scepticism by MS campaigners, who say that there is no proof that the conditions are linked.

Most experts believe that BSE and vCJD are caused by "rogue" prions in the brain, but previous research by Prof Ebringer has shown that cows with the disease have unusually high levels of antibodies against the acinetobacter bacterium.

In this new study, Prof Ebringer and his team screened blood from 26 human patients with MS, 20 with severe brain injuries caused by accidents, and 10 with a standard viral infection. They also studied samples from 25 healthy volunteers as a control group.

The researchers found that the MS patients made far more antibodies to acinetobacter than the other participants, which echoes their findings on cows with BSE.

Prof Ebringer speculates that because the bacterium has chemical markers on its surface matching those on nerve and brain cells, the antibodies produced in response attack the wrong tissue by mistake and this is what causes BSE, vCJD and MS to appear.

However, a spokesman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society told New Scientist magazine that many bacteria had been unsuccessfully linked with MS in the past, and dismissed the idea that MS and BSE could be the same. Brains from cows with BSE and humans with vCJD were spongy, whereas tissue from MS patients was covered in scars, he said.

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