British scientists have developed the world’s first reliable blood test for the human version of mad cow disease.
The breakthrough could transform diagnosis and screening of the fatal brain disorder, and identify carriers. It could also help scientists accurately assess for the first time how many Britons may be incubating the disease.
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) is the human equivalent of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), which affects cattle.
Identified in the 1990s, the illness was traced to the consumption of beef products containing contaminated meat. Since then, there have been 170 confirmed or suspected deaths from vCJD in the UK
VCJD progressively causes the brain to become riddled with holes, leading to mental problems, loss of body function, and eventual death.
There is no cure for the condition, which has a long incubation period. People can harbour the infectious proteins – called prions – believed to spread the disease for years while experiencing no symptoms. During this time, they can potentially transmit the disease by donating blood or undergoing surgery.
Until now there has been no way of telling for sure if someone has the disease other than examining their brain tissue.
The prototype blood test developed by scientists at the Medical Research Council (MRC) is 100,000 times more sensitive than any studied before. Details of the research appear today in The Lancet medical journal.
Lead author Dr Graham Jackson, from the MRC Prion Unit, based at University College London, said: “This test comes at the end of many years of meticulous, painstaking research in our Unit and the NHS National Prion Clinic.
“Although further larger studies are needed to confirm its effectiveness, it’s the best hope yet of a successful early diagnostic test for the disease. This test could potentially go on to allow blood services to screen the population for vCJD infection, assess how many people in the UK are silent carriers and prevent onward transmission of the disease.”