MAFF to fund new research

March 29, 1996

Kam Patel reports on accusations of 'woefully inadequate' statistics on BSE, and the launch of a new research programme. Health secretary Stephen Dorrell announced earlier this week that a new directed research programme will be launched to complement existing work on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), following recommendations from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee .

The initiative will be headed by John Swales, R&D director at the National Health Service, and will involve the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food , the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council.

It will complement nearly Pounds 10 million a year spent by Government and its agencies on research into BSE. Two-thirds of the total funding is made available through the MAFF with the research councils accounting for most of the rest.

Mr Dorrell said that SEAC had recommended the "commitment of substantial additional resources to long-term basic and applied research" and that the Government accepted this recommendation.

There are two main hypotheses that scientists are working on in tackling the disease. The first assumes that the transmissible spongiform diseases (TSEs), such as BSE, are driven by purely genetic factors.

According to this theory, normal versions of prion protein, an integral feature of this family of diseases, are forced to convert to a rogue version. In so doing they perpetuate the disease.

The second line of attack - one which is favoured by researchers at the Institute of Animal Health - is that there are other components that account for the variation in different strains of the disease.

These components work alongside the prion protein dimension of the disease. Some scientists think that one of these components could be a form of nucleic acid or possibly a strand of DNA.

The Medical Research Council spends nearly Pounds 700,000 per year on BSE research. Last week it launched a call for new research proposals into transmissible diseases such as BSE.

Most MRC-funded research is carried out at the Institute of Animal Health's Neuropathogenesis Unit in Edinburgh, a leader on research into BSE. The unit looks at the nature of the prion protein; the genetic basis for disease transmission and susceptibility; and how the disease develops in the central nervous system.

But the council warns that many of the experiments are long term, with an incubation period in mice of up to two years. The work is also hazardous because of the virulent nature of prion protein.

The BBSRC spends Pounds 2.4 million on research into TSEs, with about half dedicated specifically to BSE. In addition the council spends about Pounds 1 million in core funding of research into TSEs at the Institute of Animal Health.

The BBSRC's current research interests include: * identifying and characterising the infectious agent of scrapie and related TSEs; * determining the normal structure and function of the prion protein, since some scientists believe that prion protein is actually the infectious agent; * understanding the epidemiology (occurrence, transmission and control) of the disease and how it originates, develops and exhibits itself.

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