New technique for earlier mad cow detection

New technique for earlier mad cow detection

June 13, 2001 Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) -- Swiss biotechnology firm Serono SA said on Wednesday it has developed a new technique that will lead to earlier detection of mad cow disease and other animal and human brain disorders.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and its human equivalent variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (VCJD) are caused by abnormal brain proteins or prions.

The fatal degenerative brain disorders are diagnosed after death by an examination of brain tissue because levels of abnormal prions in other parts of the body are too low to detect.

Dr Claudio Soto and a team of scientists at the Serono Pharmaceutical Research Institute in Geneva have cultivated mutated prions in the laboratory for the first time and have devised a method to replicate them to high enough levels to detect the disease at an earlier stage, using existing tests.

The technique will improve understanding of prion diseases and may also help scientists to identify drug targets for VCJD and other brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

"The procedure mimics the replication of abnormal prion proteins in the body in fast forward mode, compressing years of real-life time into a few hours in the laboratory," said Silvano Fumero, Serono's senior vice president of research and pharmaceutical development.

"This is a major scientific breakthrough and has potential applications in improving tests for prion diseases," he added.

In addition to improving the sensitivity of available tests, the technique that is described in the science journal Nature could form the basis of a blood or spinal fluid diagnostic test for live animals and humans.

There are currently no tests available for live or newly infected animals, or dead animals less than 30 months old.

Serono is seeking a patent on the technique, called Protein Misfolding Cyclic Amplification (PMCA), and is looking into collaborations or licensing agreements for animal and human applications.

"What we have done is one step before detection. We have amplified the material that can be then applied to any existing detection systems," Soto explained in a telephone interview.

"It boosts the amount of the material and therefore increases several hundred times the sensitivity," he added.

The Swiss research will also allow scientists to study normal prions in the laboratory to determine what causes them to mutate and force other normal proteins to change. Mutated prions form plaques in the brain which cause the disease symptoms and eventually death.

Scientists suspect the BSE epidemic was caused by feeding cattle meat and other byproducts from animals infected with BSE.

British researchers identified a new strain of the CJD in 1996 which they said was probably caused by eating meat infected with BSE.

So far there have been about 100 cases of VCJD in Britain, France and Ireland. Because of the long incubation period, which can be up to 30 years, scientists say it is impossible to predict how many people will be struck down by the disease. Estimates range from thousands to ten of thousands over the coming years.

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