A 24-Hour Lab Meeting on Mad Cow Illness

New York Times, Tuesday, March 13, 2001


Dr. Thomas Pringle, a biochemist, never planned to become an authority on mad cow disease.

After years of teaching college biology, an inheritance allowed him to set up a small foundation dedicated to environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest. He became interested in chronic wasting disease - a related malady in deer and elk - and that led him to mad cow disease.

Today Dr. Pringle, 55, runs the Sperling Biomedical Foundation out of his home in Eugene, Ore., gathering information on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, including mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease, the human ailment Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or C.J.D., and a new variant of C.J.D., which people contract from eating affected beef. All are believed to be caused by aberrant proteins called prions.

"My main interest is in annotating the prion gene family within the Human Genome Project," Dr. Pringle said recently. The project recently identified more than 30,000 human genes and published their DNA sequences on public databases. Each day, Dr. Pringle's prion disease Web site (www.mad-cow.org) collects articles and research papers written about these diseases, from this country and abroad. "It is intended as a model for intensive annotation of any supergene family," he said. "I believe it is ethically important for scientists to inform public debate on highly complex topics with major policy components."

He spoke by phone from his home.

Q. You have been tracking mad cow disease for five years now and have established a Web site on the topic (www.mad-cow.org). How did you get involved with this project?

A. I got interested in mad cow disease via chronic wasting disease in deer and elk. I went on the Internet and found information that was just an eye-opener to me involving the risks to wildlife and humans. The scientist who was maintaining the site had other things to do, so I sort of took it over. I meant to add a few links and stories, but here I am five years later. The story never died.

Q. What do you want to achieve with the Web site on mad cow disease?

A. In 1996 the Web was just getting started. I wanted to do a disease Web site that showed how the Internet could be used to do original research based on published information and how it can become the scientific medium of the future. As the paradigm for a disease Web site, madcow carries news and has unlimited space for scientific papers, complex graphics, annotations and interactive models. I would not carry nearly so much news on the Web site if the news would only let up.

Q. Who visits the Web site on mad cow disease?

A. It's a meeting ground for scientists from all over the world. The Web site is a place where they can place a research paper after it's been accepted for publication. But instead of waiting six months for it to appear in print, they can share information right away, unless the journal in question objects, which most do not. It's also a place where families can get help. My dad died from a dementia at age 80, so I can relate to what people are going through. When families get a diagnosis of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, they don't understand what it means. They get it mixed up with the new variant of the disease in England that is related to mad cow disease. So they come to me really confused. Their needs are not being met by health professionals. I put them in touch with support groups on the Web, and that can help a lot.

Q. Where do you get your information for the mad cow Web site?

A. Many scientists are more than happy to share information with me. Some information gets leaked to me. I try to develop a relationship with a postdoc in every major lab, and I talk to many principal investigators. I see myself as directing a virtual mega-lab. All these other labs are there to report back to mission central, where some sense is made out of it. One frustration for me is that research results have really gone underground in last five months. A race is on to develop diagnostic tests for live animals and blood tests for humans. The big companies funding the research don't want any information put on the Web. But I think open dissemination of all information is the only answer to this disease.

Q. What are your qualifications to run a mad cow Web site, and how much time do you spend on it?

A. On the sheepskin side, Harvard undergraduate, graduate work in molecular biology at U.C. San Diego and Ph.D. in mathematics at University of Oregon. Former college professor at the University of Texas medical school and Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. I've gotten very fast at assembling and synthesizing data. I have a lot of people helping me.

Q. Do you ever feel you are a threat to officials in government laboratories or the cattle industry who don't like what you have to say?

A. When I first started this, friends said, "Tom, some rancher is going to come by your house at night and poison your dog." Well, now I know they wouldn't do that. They've hired a public relations agency instead that is trying to discredit me as just another gadfly. I don't make the news. I don't write the articles. I don't create the events. I'm basically a clearinghouse for information that everyone wants. The problem for industry and government is that this disease is out of anybody's control. Companies can't prevent, say, Taiwan from banning the import of cosmetics containing cow by-products. It can't change the number of positive tests for mad cow disease in German cows.

Q. What can companies be doing about mad cow disease that they are not?

A. Where industry has gone wrong is in listening to P.R. people. The mad cow epidemic is not an information management issue. It is not a perception problem. It's a disease that won't go away. Instead of saying it was not a problem in the United States, they could have started a research program years ago. Now when the press asks them, "Is there a risk in the United States; is it zero; or is it small; and if it's small, how small?" the government doesn't have answers. Industry doesn't have answers. Without ultrasensitive tests, it's hard to provide a satisfactory answer to the public.

Q. How big a threat is mad cow disease in American-born and -bred animals?

A. I don't expect the British strain of mad cow disease to be much of a problem here. The main fear is that our own cattle may carry a different strain of the disease that is distinct from the British strain. There's no evidence one way or another if such a homegrown disease would be a threat to humans. But we've had many potential sources of infection including deer, elk and sheep infected with similar diseases.

Q. Are we likely to see a case of the human form of mad cow disease in this country?

A. Yes. But I'm not one of those who believes that the disease has already occurred in the United States and has been covered up. But based on the number of Americans exposed while living in or visiting Europe, it is just a matter of time.

Q. What is it about mad cow disease that is so frightening?

A. Dementias are very disturbing to people because they are so embarrassing. You lose bowel and bladder control, go blind and become entirely dependent on others. It's especially hard to see this in a 20- to 40-year-old person. And there is so much uncertainty. There are too many routes of exposure. You'll never know how a person got the disease.

Q. Should Americans be worried about mad cow disease?

A. People tell me that they know the risk of being exposed to an infected cow is very small, but if one in a million American cows are naturally infected with the disease and those cows make it into the food supply, somebody's got to eat them. At the same time, we have no evidence that American cattle have ever caused this disease in humans. Nor do we know what causes 85 percent of cases of sporadic C.J.D. So much is unknown.

Q. What should Americans who have lived abroad, especially in England, do about possible exposure to mad cow disease?

A. I tell them that they should not worry all that much but should monitor developments. There are 60 million people living in Britain who are massively exposed and who ate many more hamburgers. We need to wait and see how big the problem gets in England.

Q. When people ask you what you eat, what do you say?

A. I read a fair number of autopsy reports and see what this disease can do. So I'm much more conscious of what I eat. I wouldn't touch a lambchop given the levels of scrapie here in the Willamette Valley. I would not eat oxtail soup or a T-bone steak. I occasionally eat fish and chicken. But canned tuna fish weirdly can have bovine casings, so I don't eat that. French wine is sometimes clarified with bovine blood, and I probably unwittingly drank some of that at some point. I avoid English cheeses. Basically all my food is locally produced. I'm not interested in food that I don't know where it came from.

Q. Is there any cause for optimism about containing mad cow disease?

A. I don't see this as the collapse of Western civilization. But I feel that the English opened a Pandora's box pretty badly, pretty widely. It was because of their various rounds of half measures that they failed to restrain themselves on exports and brought everyone else into this disease. We are at a real watershed. How much should we focus on containment and how much on cure? Containment efforts pit one country against the next with every nation looking out for itself. We should put a larger effort into curing the disease.


Organic Consumers Association - Home
6101 Cliff Estate Rd., Little Marais, MN 55614,  about us
Activist or Media Inquiries: (218) 226-4164,  Fax: (218) 226-4157
If you support this web site, send a tax-deductible donation to OCA
Organic Food News | Green Living vs Corporate Abuse | Genetically Engineered Food
Events  | Daily News | Participate Locally | Food Irradiation | Mad Cow Diseases / CJD
Find Pure Food | Cloning/Patents & Xenotransplants | rBGH | Toxic Food | Monsanto Watch
SEARCH site using keywords.

* BioDemocracy News
(published every 6 weeks) previous issues