New Scientist, 28 March 2001
What if you can catch old-fashioned CJD by eating meat from a sheep infected with scrapie?
Exclusive from New Scientist magazine
Four years ago, Terry Singeltary watched his mother die horribly from a degenerative brain disease. Doctors told him it was Alzheimer's, but Singeltary was suspicious. The diagnosis didn't fit her violent symptoms, and he demanded an autopsy. It showed she had died of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Most doctors believe that sCJD is caused by a prion protein deforming by chance into a killer. But Singeltary thinks otherwise.
He is one of a number of campaigners who say that some sCJD, like the variant CJD related to BSE, is caused by eating meat from infected animals. Their suspicions have focused on sheep carrying scrapie, a BSE-like disease that is widespread in flocks across Europe and North America.
Now scientists in France have stumbled across new evidence that adds weight to the campaigners' fears. To their complete surprise, the researchers found that one strain of scrapie causes the same brain damage in mice as sCJD.
"This means we cannot rule out that at least some sCJD may be caused by some strains of scrapie," says team member Jean-Philippe Deslys of the French Atomic Energy Commission's medical research laboratory in Fontenay-aux-Roses, south-west of Paris.
Hans Kretschmar of the University of Göttingen, who coordinates CJD surveillance in Germany, is so concerned by the findings that he now wants to trawl back through past sCJD cases to see if any might have been caused by eating infected mutton or lamb.
Scrapie has been around for centuries and until now there has been no evidence that it poses a risk to human health. But if the French finding means that scrapie can cause sCJD in people, countries around the world may have overlooked a CJD crisis to rival that caused by BSE.
Deslys and colleagues were originally studying vCJD, not sCJD. They injected the brains of macaque monkeys with brain from BSE cattle, and from French and British vCJD patients. The brain damage and clinical symptoms in the monkeys were the same for all three. Mice injected with the original sets of brain tissue or with infected monkey brain also developed the same symptoms.
As a control experiment, the team also injected mice with brain tissue from people and animals with other prion diseases: a French case of sCJD; a French patient who caught sCJD from human-derived growth hormone; sheep with a French strain of scrapie; and mice carrying a prion derived from an American scrapie strain.
As expected, they all affected the brain in a different way from BSE and vCJD. But while the American strain of scrapie caused different damage from sCJD, the French strain produced exactly the same pathology.
"The main evidence that scrapie does not affect humans has been epidemiology," says Moira Bruce of the neuropathogenesis unit of the Institute for Animal Health in Edinburgh, who was a member of the same team as Deslys.
"You see about the same incidence of the disease everywhere, whether or not there are many sheep, and in countries such as New Zealand with no scrapie," she says. In the only previous comparisons of sCJD and scrapie in mice, Bruce found they were dissimilar.
But there are more than 20 strains of scrapie, and six of sCJD. "You would not necessarily see a relationship between the two with epidemiology if only some strains affect only some people," says Deslys. Bruce is cautious about the mouse results, but agrees they require further investigation. Other trials of scrapie and sCJD in mice, she says, are in progress.
People can have three different genetic variations of the human prion protein, and each type of protein can fold up two different ways. Kretschmar has found that these six combinations correspond to six clinical types of sCJD: each type of normal prion produces a particular pathology when it spontaneously deforms to produce sCJD.
But if these proteins deform because of infection with a disease-causing prion, the relationship between pathology and prion type should be different, as it is in vCJD. "If we look at brain samples from sporadic CJD cases and find some that do not fit the pattern," says Kretschmar, "that could mean they were caused by infection."
There are 250 deaths per year from sCJD in the US, and a similar incidence elsewhere. Singeltary and other US activists think that some of these people died after eating contaminated meat or "nutritional" pills containing dried animal brain.
Governments will have a hard time facing activists like Singeltary if it turns out that some sCJD isn't as spontaneous as doctors have insisted.
Deslys's work on macaques also provides further proof that the human disease vCJD is caused by BSE. And the experiments showed that vCJD is much more virulent to primates than BSE, even when injected into the bloodstream rather than the brain. This, says Deslys, means that there is an even bigger risk than we thought that vCJD can be passed from one patient to another through contaminated blood transfusions and surgical instruments.
More at: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol 98, p 4142)
1900 GMT, 28 March 2001
The New Scientist Magazine version http://www.newscientist.com/dailynews/news.jsp?id=ns9999560
Return to Speaking and Activity Schedule . VeganCowboyScientist.org