Researchers investigate heartbeat clue to BSE

April 3, 2002 The Guardian (London) by James Meikle
Researchers are to investigate whether they can test for the human form of BSE by monitoring patients' heart rhythms, following promising results on cattle later confirmed as having the animal disease.

People who are suspected of having the fatal condition will be the guinea pigs for a study funded by the Department of Health using equipment that is basically a supercharged version of existing heart monitors and can reflect variations in heart beat five times more accurately.

A commercial test for cattle is already under development, a US patent on the technique in animals has been granted and applications for patents have been made in other countries including Britain. Diagnoses of variant CJD are at present only confirmed by postmortem examination of brain tissue although tests on tonsils and results from scans for brain function are regarded sufficiently robust to help identify the disease as "probable" in patients being investigated for the neurological disorder.

There have so far been 110 deaths from the condition in Britain, with seven probable victims still alive.

Most research on tests for vCJD so far have concentrated on finding markers in the blood. The finding of a test that is reliable in humans long before they display clinical signs is an urgent priority for the government so it can further limit the risks of contamination of blood supplies and hospital equipment.

Twenty-two new projects, backed by government departments and their research funding bodies to the tune of more than pounds 7m, will be announced today. They are the latest in nearly pounds 180m worth of grants awarded since 1986 in the attempt to unlock the mysteries of diseases which have brought untold misery.

Chris Pomfrett, a lecturer in neurophysiology, whose main experience is connected to anaesthetics at Manchester royal infirmary, has been investigating the possible significance in the variations in individuals' heart rhythms, rather than the overall rate, using equipment that monitor heart beat fluctuations.

He tried his theory on cows kept under experimental conditions by the government's veterinary laboratory agency and found those later confirmed as being victims of BSE all displayed increased variabilty in heart rhythm well before they showed other signs of disease.

A commercial company is developing the technique he invented as a live test for BSE in live animals.

The test depends on the way infection moves up the vagus nerve, which links the gut, heart, larnyx and other tissues to the brain, and both governs and fine tunes the heart beat.

Dr Pomfrett, who has been awarded a pounds 50,000 grant, said the increased variation in heart beat rhythm for BSE was "quite distinctive and quite big".

A grant has also been made to David Brown, a biochemist at Bath University. He has been following up the theories of Somerset farmer Mark Purdey, whose explanations that the diseases might be linked to environmental causes, including use of pesticides in farming, have previously been frowned on.

Dr Brown, awarded pounds 215,000 by the Department of the Environment, said: "It is good they have supported me, but it is very sad for Mark Purdey that he has not been supported."

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