'Bitter' feud stalls hunt for CJD cure

March 5, 2004

Attempts to find a cure for the fatal brain disease CJD are being hampered by a longstanding feud between two academic teams.

The CJD surveillance unit at Edinburgh University and the Medical Research Council prion unit at the Institute of Neurology in London - the only units working on the disease in the UK - have been unable to reach an official agreement about how they should work together after years of negotiation.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare but deadly brain disorder that causes patients to deteriorate rapidly. It is difficult to diagnose and, as yet, there is no cure.

A fast-track trial of drugs to treat the disease, promised two and a half years ago, has yet to get off the ground because the two centres have been unable to agree a plan for the direction of the trial.

The Times Higher has learnt that the MRC and the Department of Health have written to both units calling for an emergency meeting to try to sort out the dispute.

Sir Iain Chalmers, who recently resigned as chair of the trial steering committee, said he had done his best to bridge the divide. He said: "Only after I accepted the position was I introduced to the longstanding, bitter relationship between the researchers. This is a problem going back more than ten years.

"I am very disappointed that this feud continues. Unless the public starts to get angry about this, I can't see their interests being served as they should be."

One senior medic said the directors of the two research units, James Ironside at Edinburgh and John Collinge at the Institute of Neurology, were arguing over access to individual patients and blood and brain samples.

Angus Kennedy, who has resigned from Professor Collinge's unit, said: "I feel that every day that it goes on there is an increasing need for a solution and for people senior to them (the academics) to make sure it is effected quickly."

Gillian Turner of the CJD Support Network said the "personality clash" had angered families hoping for a cure. She said: "I suppose if you are a scientist you have your own set of beliefs, but this is playground stuff."

Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the MRC, said: "I'm disappointed that it wasn't possible to resolve the practical obstacles before the end of last year, but it is vital to get the protocol right so it can stand up as a procedure for testing any new putative therapy for CJD in the future."

The heads of both CJD units insisted this week that any disagreement was not personal.

Professor Collinge said setting up the trial was challenging because the disease was so complicated. He said: "What I want to achieve is a trial that delivers for the patients. It really ought to be possible to do this, and I want to get this solved."

Richard Knight, the acting director of Professor Ironside's unit, said:

"There are real issues about how we can work together.

"The issue from our point of view is devastatingly simple. CJD surveillance is critically important to the UK. Anything that might interfere with that or change the process has to be looked at very carefully."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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