« | Home | »

Testing for vCJD

Tags:

In 1997, I did a research project at the National CJD Research and Surveillance Unit at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital, supervised by Robert Will and James Ironside, who co-authored the 1996 paper in the Lancet that proposed the existence of vCJD in the UK. The only reliable way to diagnose the disease was by post-mortem examination of the brain, which would reveal the tiny holes in the brain tissue caused by massive cell death – giving it a sponge-like appearance – and allow us to test for the presence of abnormal proteins.

By the end of 1997 there had been 23 confirmed cases of vCJD. The big question was whether this was the start of an epidemic. In similar diseases, such as kuru, there could be a gap of up to forty years between infection and first presentation of symptoms. For once, the media’s scaremongering – Will and Ironside faced a daily barrage of phone calls from journalists – had some scientific foundation.

The number of confirmed cases of vCJD increased over the following few years – in part perhaps because of greater awareness and improved screening methods – but not by much. In all, so far, there have been 176 cases. Still, if vCJD has an average incubation time of 15 or 20 years, we could still be in the shallow part of the epidemiological curve.

The development of a blood test for vCJD was published in the Lancet a year ago. Last week Channel 4 News revealed that the test is now available for use in the UK. There is still no treatment for any form of CJD, but if the test is effective – researchers don’t yet know what the false positive rate is – it should be possible at least to establish more accurately how many carriers there are in the UK: current estimates, based on tonsil biopsies, put the number at 1 in 4000, or a total of 15,000.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...
    • Geoff Roberts on What happened in Cologne?: The most surprising thing about the events in Cologne (and the most disturbing) is that some 600 incidents of theft, harrasment and rape were reported...
    • EmilyEmily on What happened in Cologne?: The author's argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another - let's not confuse the two. Alfalfa's poin...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement