Scrapie-infected sheep could be as dangerous to human health as mad cows

April 14, 2001 The Sunday Times (UK) by Jonathan Leake

Scientists have found new evidence linking the condition with the commonest form of the human brain rotting disease CJD. The research, carried out by British and French scientists, showed that one of the agents causing scrapie is identical to that found in some cases of sporadic CJD. This condition - which is different from variant CJD (vCJD) - kills about 60 Britons a year. Scientists said the results were preliminary and should be treated with caution - but warned they must be investigated.

The researchers injected some mice with material taken from scrapie-infected sheep and others with material from people with sporadic CJD. They found that the types of brain damage that resulted were identical - a clear sign that the agents that caused it, known as prions, were of the same type. A research paper co-written by Professor James Ironside of Britain's CJD Surveillance Unit, says the implications are very serious. It said the work: "Prompts reconsideration of the possibility that, in some instances, sheep and human prion diseases can share a common origin."

The findings have provoked strong reaction abroad. Hans Kretschmar of Gottingen University who co-ordinates Germany's CJD surveillance programme, said he was planning an epidemiological study of all sporadic CJD cases to see if any might have been caused by eating infected sheep.

Scientists have long believed that BSE is just one of a range of animal and human diseases all caused by brain proteins known as prions which can become deformed and destroy brain function. Humans suffer from several prion diseases, including variant and sporadic CJD but in sheep at least 30 are known. The emergence of BSE prompted much speculation that at least some of these might be dangerous to humans. Dr Moira Bruce, a leading prion researcher who was also involved with the work stressed it was too early to draw conclusions. She added: "Much more information would be needed to indicate a definite link between sporadic CJD and and scrapie."

Meanwhile, Britain's agriculture ministry (Maff) is to spend 20m screening 200,000 cattle for BSE. Under the scheme all downer cows - those which die on farms or during transport - will be tested for the disease along with any slaughtered over the age of 36 months. It coincides with new work on the number of humans likely to be stricken with variant CJD, now being finalised by Professor Roy Anderson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College, London.

Previous studies by his team have suggested a maximum of 136,000 people might die of vCJD - but the recent Queniborough inquiry showed that the disease may have a much longer incubation period than Anderson had allowed for - and so could claim more victims than expected. Some experts predict the longer incubation period could mean a doubling of the potential victims. The study is still under way but this weekend Anderson said: "I would have been much happier if the incubation period had been found to be shorter."

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