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Brussels, October 3, 2000

Progress in the detection and prevention of BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
European Action Plan on TSE research

Keywords: transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, mad cow disease, prion

On 28-29 September, researchers representing 150 laboratories involved in 54 EU-funded research projects on TSE diseases, met to review the results of the European Action Plan which has mobilised EUR 50 million to promote understanding, detecting and combating TSEs, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in man, BSE in cows or scrapie in sheep. The meeting also helped to identify future directions for research and emphasised the need for funding.

Encouraging results were presented on new detection systems, European-wide surveillance systems for disease in both humans and animals, the nature of the infectious agents and the reduction of risks in the food chain.

Researchers involved in 54 EU-funded collaborative projects met last week to assess progress in four main areas and identify further research needs:

Transmission of infectious agents: The new findings confirm the suspicion of the existence of previously undetected sub-clinical cases , which require more powerful detection methods. This also supports the view that animals that appear to be resistant to infection may simply have a longer incubation period. Another interesting observation is that oxidative stress in cells is an important pathogenic factor in TSEs. Other advances were reported, particularly using research models such as yeast.

Human TSEs: One major achievement of the Action Plan is the establishment and continuation of a European Union-wide surveillance system for CJD ensuring harmonised data collection and analysis and agreed clinical criteria for CJD classification allowing distinction between “classical” and “variant” CJD. Other teams presented encouraging results on the development of ultra-sensitive detection methods for prion protein in patients, as well as continuing improvements in diagnostic methods for all forms of CJD using brain imaging (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

Animal TSEs: Advances have been made to obtain pre-clinical diagnosis in various breeds of animals. The active surveillance carried out in Switzerland has demonstrated its effectiveness in detecting previously hidden cases. Significant progress has been made to establish surveillance systems for BSE and scrapie, with the harmonisation of laboratory diagnostic procedures throughout Europe. Promising results also emerged from genotype studies of major European sheep breeds in order to breed for resistance to the disease.

How to reduce risks: In this final session, research on the potential risks of contamination of beef, blood products and rendered products was presented. These findings hold promise for significant reduction in contamination of bovine carcasses and other products with TSE.

The meeting was opened by Mrs D. Roth-Behrendt, Member of the European Parliament and representative of the Parliamentary Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection, who emphasised "the need to intensify research" in view of the fact that "many aspects of TSE are still unclear, particularly related to epidemiology and transmission." Mrs Roth-Behrendt insisted that "research funding has to be increased in order to provide answers to public concerns as quickly as possible".

The European Action Plan was proposed by the European Commission in November 1996 in view of the need to provide a rapid and co-ordinated response at European level to deal with the anxieties concerning human health risks. The Action Plan was rapidly adopted by Council and Parliament with a supplementary budget of Euro 35 million. Since then 54 projects involving 150 research laboratories throughout Europe have been funded with Euro 50 million from the European Commission under Framework Programme 4 (Biomed, Biotech and FAIR programmes).

"The European Action Plan on TSE is exemplary of the benefits of a strong co-operation and co-ordination at European level. It demonstrates that Europe is able to rapidly mobilise substantial research resources in response to emergency questions. Such efforts must be encouraged and supported in the framework of a European Research Area", stated Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin.

Research efforts are being pursued in the Fifth Framework Programme where all aspects foreseen in the Action Plan are included in the Quality of Life programme. For instance, in Key action 2 – Infectious Diseases, key action 1 – Food, Nutrition and Health and key action 3 – the Cell Factory, as well as through the Generic Activities and support for Infrastructures. Three new projects have been selected for funding to pursue the continuous surveillance of CJD cases, harmonise diagnostic methods and investigate manufacturing processes to reduce risks of contamination. Forthcoming calls for proposals in the Quality of Life programme this year and in 2001 offer the opportunity to strengthen this effort and focus on critical areas where research is needed.

Further information on research programmes and project results are available from the European Commission Research DG and, in particular, the Quality of Life programme.

For additional information: Stéphane Hogan, Quality of Life programme, Research DG
Fax : +32.2.299.1860
E-mail: Research Contact

Michel Claessens, Communication Unit, Research DG
Fax: +32-2-295.8220
E-mail: michel.claessens@ec.europa.eu

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PRESS RELEASES | 03.10.2000