The Medical Research Council has drawn up proposals for a Pounds 22 million study of mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt Jakob disease in an effort to boost Britain's scientific expertise in the area.
The move stems from the recent discovery of a form of CJD in humans which is an invariably fatal neurodegenerative disease. Scientists have suggested a strong link between this new form of CJD and earlier exposure to mad cow disease (BSE).
Both diseases are transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. The diseases are thought to be associated with a protein, called the prion protein, rather than a virus or conventional micro-organism.
Past research has focused on animal health considerations. The MRC is proposing a research programme examing links to human health.
A spokesman said: "While the degree of future threat to humans of CJD remains uncertain, the need to respond to the threat to human health remains clear."
The MRC's proposals are being considered by the Office of Science and Technology. While the MRC can contribute Pounds 5 million to the initiative, a council spokesman said that the eventual scale of the initiative will depend on success in securing additional funds from the Treasury.
Key objectives of the MRC's initiative include strengthening of laboratories engaged in the field. This will include new facilities for mouse genetic approaches, non-human primate studies and brain imaging.
Scientific themes include the biological and epidemiological relationship between CJD and BSE and analysis, perception and communication of risk in relation to CJD.
But the MRC warns that its initiative will not provide a "quick fix" for the urgent practical problems. Infection experiments in mice take one to two years, with those in non-human primates lasting six to eight years. In addition, epidemiological patterns may require at least a year or two of analysis before significant upward trends are detected.