Mad cow incubation researched; Some human patients may not show symptoms for as long as 50 years and the average is 30 years.

Mad cow incubation researched;
Some human patients may not show symptoms for as long as 50 years and the average is 30 years.

June 21, 2001 Wisconsin State Journal

The incubation period for the human form of mad cow disease may average 30 years, with some patients not showing symptoms for as long as 50 years, a researcher said. That may mean more people have it than realized.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, as the human form is known, is very similar to kuru, a disease discovered in New Guinea in the 1950s, said John Collinge, an Imperial College School of Medicine researcher, at the XVII World Congress of Neurology in London.

Like vCJD, kuru, which was linked to people who ritually ate the remains of their ancestors, was caused by a type of protein that damages a person's central nervous system. A man in New Guinea was diagnosed 50 years after being exposed to kuru, Collinge said. VCJD, which is transmitted to people who eat infected beef, may have similar incubation times, he said.

"That's pretty sobering when you think about cases of vCJD," he said. "There are some who believe we won't have an epidemic because we haven't seen many cases. I'm afraid that's optimistic. This is the beginning, not the end."

VCJD has been documented in 102 people in the U.K., three in France and one each in Ireland and Hong Kong, said Robert Will of the U.K.'s National CJD Surveillance Unit.

The U.K. has outlawed some of the practices that caused cattle to become infected, such as feeding sheep remains to cows. Other countries have taken too long to make similar changes, researchers said.

"It would be a tremendous amount of luck if no one has been infected in continental Europe," said Adriano Aguzzi, a professor at University Hospital of Zurich. "It would be a tremendous tragedy because all the information was at hand" to prevent it.

Several companies, including Serono AG, Prionics AG and Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc., are working on more sensitive tests for cattle. Current tests require the use of brain tissue after slaughter.

Earlier at the neurology meeting, Collinge said No. 2 drug maker GlaxoSmithKline may be five years away from a treatment to block the protein that causes vCJD.

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