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25 April 2003
Government stops funding for BSE critic
Reproduced from THE TIMES April 24, 2003
(Followed by Land-Care Editorial Comment)
(Filed 25 April 03)
© The Times
MARGARET BECKETT has withdrawn funding from a
scientist whose research is threatening to undermine government
policy on food safety.
Professor Alan Ebringer, of Kings College
London, an Australian-born microbiologist, has suggested that there
is no link between the cattle disease BSE and new variant CJD, which
attacks human beings. He believes the Government has spent millions
unnecessarily in slaughtering cattle and banning certain categories
There has been opposition to his work from conventional
scientists, who make up the majority of the Government-backed committee
that vets all research applications.
Now Professor Ebringer has been told by Mrs Becketts
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that, despite
the government support he has received for three years, his application
for a new research grant has been turned down. As a result, he will
be closing his Kings College laboratory and winding up his
Professor Ebringer, who has had US as well as
British funding, has become so disillusioned over the Governments
attitude that he has decided to retire from science altogether.
It is clear that there is no further interest in my work,
he said yesterday.
"From the point of view of British science
this is sad, because alternative hypotheses should always be tested
to the limit. That is the way science advances."
Professor Ebringers research has always
been controversial. It directly challenges the theory first advanced
by the American scientist Professor Stanley Prusiner, that "mad
cow" disease was caused by prions cell membrane proteins
found in high concentrations in the brain tissue.
Professor Prusiner won a Nobel prize for his work,
and his findings drive government food safety programmes. Only last
month he was giving warning that thousands of people in Britain
were at risk of contracting vCJD because they had eaten contaminated
Professor Ebringer points out that despite predictions
that a death toll of more than 100,000 could be expected in Britain,
there were only 15 cases last year, down from 20 the year before
and 28 in 2000.
He believes that BSE was caused by a microbe,
acinetobacter, detected in
the wounds of US servicemen in Vietnam.
After his long study of autoimmune diseases such
as multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis,
he is convinced that BSE falls into this category. The importance
of Professor Ebringers research lies not just in the light
it sheds on BSE, but the hope it offered to MS sufferers. He believes
he was on the way to proving his theory when funding was withdrawn.
"All I ask now is that patients with vCJD should be tested
for antibodies to the acinetobacter bacterium that is the
cause of the disease, not contaminated meat."
Land-Care Editorial Comment
It is indeed sad that Professor Ebringer has been
told by Mrs Becketts Department for Environment, Food and
Rural Affairs that, despite the government support he has received
for three years, his application for a new research grant has been
turned down. As a result, he will be closing his Kings College
laboratory and winding up his experiments. His reaction is perfectly
Teviot Scientific Publications recently published
on-line in the Journal of Clinical and Laboratory Immunology a paper
by Professor Ebringers team describing the development of
an ante-mortem test for diagnosing BSE in cattle (1).
It really was not too much to ask that he be given
an opportunity to see if this type of test, based on the presence
or absence of antibodies to the Acinetobacter
bacillus, was relevant to vCJD. It is doubtful whether much serum
would be required for this purpose. The inference would appear to
be that access to the necessary samples may have been refused by
those pursuing other lines of research and who do have access to
such samples. Land-Cares understanding is that SEAC (Spongiform
Encephalopathy Advisory Committee) essentially controls who and
who does not get samples for research in this area.
The circumstances surrounding the closure of
Professor Ebringers laboratory - which in addition was also
doing interesting and relevant work on Multiple Sclerosis - raises
serious questions over how research in the UK is presently conducted
and controlled. Is the management of medical and veterinary research
in the UK really as sick as this suggests?
1. Wilson, C., Hughes, L. E.,
Rashid, T., Ebringer, A. and Bansal, S. (2003).
Antibodies to Acinetobacter Bacteria and Bovine Brain Peptides,
Measured in Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in an Attempt
to Develop an Ante-Mortem Test.
J. Clin. Lab. Immunol. Published online, 13 March 2003. (Download
Further Reading recommended by Land-Care
2002 Quinquennial Review of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory
(Filed 27 March 2003, www.land-care.org.uk,
here to view).
Detection of Prions: Developing Technology.
(Filed 12 February 2003, www.land-care.org.uk,
here to view).