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Available in: EN (Other available languages: FR DE NL IT )

European Commission launches world-leading prion research network

Brussels, 28 May 2004

On 28 May 2004 in Paris, European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin will launch the world's leading research network on prion diseases. With 52 laboratories in 20 countries, this network of excellence will bring together 90% of European research teams working on BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, the human form of BSE), scrapie (a sheep prion disease) and other types of prion diseases. The European Union research budget will provide €14.4 million over 5 years to the network. A new prion research facility will also be launched at the CEA (Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique), which is a major multidisciplinary research organisation in France and the institution coordinating the NeuroPrion network of excellence.

"The European Commission has made a sustained effort to tackle the BSE crisis on several fronts," said Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "This has included a special action plan for research, launched in 1996, which rapidly mobilised €50 million worth of research involving more than 120 laboratories throughout Europe. As part of the European Research Area, the NeuroPrion network of excellence is the logical next step. The network will bring together Europe's top experts to tackle prion diseases in terms of prevention, control, treatment and risk analysis."

Prion diseases are a global problem
Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) is the generic name for the spectrum of diseases which are all thought to be caused by the abnormal folding of the prion protein. TSEs include Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE, known as mad cow disease), variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (vCJD, the human form of 'mad-cow disease'), scrapie in sheep and other forms, such as Chronic Wasting Disease in deer and elk. BSE was first identified in 1986.

Since then, 180,000 cases of BSE have been diagnosed in the UK alone. Only four out of the 25 EU Member States have not yet declared any cases. A number of countries outside Europe have also found cases, making this a global disease. The impact of BSE on European society has been far reaching with a devastating impact on vCJD patients and their families. Some 146 cases of probable and confirmed vCJD have been reported.

BSE has affected the entire beef food chain, from producer to consumer. Farmers have watched their animals slaughtered in their thousands and seen their livelihoods jeopardised. A European Association of Animal Production report has estimated the cost of BSE to the states of the 15 member EU at more than €90 billion. In addition, the BSE crisis has had a significant impact on public trust in government and governmental scientific advice.

NeuroPrion - to combat malformed prion proteins
The exact function of normal prion protein is not known. In disease, the malformed protein accumulates in the brain causing dementia. A number of animal species may carry different genes encoding subtly different forms of prion protein, some of which make them more susceptible to developing disease. This can occur spontaneously, or, as in the case of BSE, as a result of being exposed to modified prions from an infected animal.

To help better understand how prion modifications occur, how they develop in animals, how they are transferred to humans and how they affect human health and in particular the brain and nerve cells, the European NeuroPrion network will gather the expertise of 52 leading research groups, accounting for more than 90% of European prion research. It aims to create a research infrastructure that will attract private investment, during and beyond the five-year funding allocated by the EU. The group has identified areas where novel, applied research is needed, and areas where greater co-ordination of research would be beneficial.

Test, diagnose and improve food safety
The most urgent research needs concern diagnosing prion diseases well in advance. Detection methods, involving the analysis of easily accessible body fluids early on in the incubation period, will be developed by the NeuroPrion network. Such tests could be used to screen both people and animals. Early diagnosis in humans will increase the likelihood of the success of therapeutic interventions and in animals, it will enhance food safety even further.

Prion surveillance
Surveillance and the analysis of risk from prion diseases both require international co-ordination. NeuroPrion encompasses all national surveillance centres for vCJD and will also link animal surveillance. Institutes will share training, exchange staff and have access to a specially designed website. Tissue and fluid banks will also be shared and standard methods agreed. Genetically altered mice strains held by different institutions will be made available to partners. These are a vital tool as they can be engineered to carry prion genes from other species and can be used to model the disease over a much shorter timeframe.

Science and society
The network will interact with the greater scientific community and the public at an annual world congress on prions. This will be held in a different European capital each year, the first, "Prion 2004", taking place between 24 and 27 May 2004 at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, The aim of the event, preceding the network's launch today, is to promote the spread of knowledge within the scientific community and between research and society at large. The congress will focus on the topics of prevention, treatment, epidemiology and risk assessment in the field of prion diseases.

For the thematic priority on "food quality and safety" in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) see: or

For more major FP6 projects

For more information on the EU's BSE research action plan and related activities, please see:

For more on TSE (Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies): or

For more on vCJD see:

For more on Scrapie see:

For further details on the Prion 2004 conference, including the programme, please see


Note for Editors

Scientific Officer

Jeremy Bray
Unit for Food Quality, Research DG, European Commission
Tel.: +32-2-295.22.32
E-mail: Jeremy.Bray @

Media Contact

Michael H. Wappelhorst
Press and information officer, Research DG
Tel.: +32-2-298.75.75, Fax: +32.2.295 82 20,
E-mail: Michael.Wappelhorst @

Commissioner Philippe Busquin’s spokesman

Fabio Fabbi
Spokesman for Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, Press DG
Tel. +32.2.296 41 74, Fax +32.2.296 30 03
E-mail: Fabio.Fabbi @

Note: If your browser does not support javascript or if you copy/paste the email addresses from this page, please remove the blank spaces surrounding the "@".


Project Acronym: NeuroPrion
Full title: Prevention, control and management of prion diseases
EU funding: €14.4million
Project co-ordinator: Jean-Philippe DESLYS, Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA),

Project partner Country
Institut für Neurologie, Universität Wien AT
Joint Research Centre, Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM), Geel BE
University of Zurich CH
Federal Research Centre for Virus Diseases of Animals DE
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf DE
Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin DE
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich DE
Robert Koch-Institut, Berlin DE
Technische Universität München DE
Westfälische Wilhelms-University, University Hospital Münster DE
Danish Veterinary Institute DK
Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas ES
Institut Neuropatologica, Hospital Universitari Bellvitge ES
Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnologiá Agraria y Alimentaria ES
Universidad de Zaragoza ES
National Veterinary and Food Research Institute FI
Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments FR
Association pour la Recherche et la Développement des Méthodes et Processus Industriels FR
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique FR
Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique FR
Ecole Nationale Vétérinaire d’Alfort FR
Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale FR
Institut National de le Recherche Agronomique FR
Université René Descartes (Paris 5) FR
Centre for Research and Technology – Hellas/Institute for Agrobiotechnology GR
National University of Ireland, Dublin IE
Hadassah Medical Organisation IS
Institute for Experimental Pathology IS
Cea-Centro Encefalopatie Animali Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale del Piemonte, Liguria e Vallee d’Aosta IT
Istituto di Richerche Farmacologiche “Mario Negri” IT
Istituto Nazionale Neurologico Carlo Besta IT
Istituto Supreriore di Sanità IT
Università di Bologna IT
University of Verona IT
Centraal Institut voor Dierziekte Controle-Lelystad, part of DLO foundation NL
ID-Lelystad, Institut voor Dierhouderij en Diergezondheid B.V. NL
National Veterinary Institute NO
Norwegian School of Veterinary Science NO
Medical University of Lodz PL
Laboratorio Nacional de Investigacao Veterinaria PT
Karolinska Institute SE
National Veterinary Institute SE
Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Computer Sciences, Comenius University SK
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs UK
Health Protection Agency UK
Institute for Animal Health UK
Medical Research Council UK
Moredun Research Institute, Edinburgh UK
Roslin Institute UK
Royal Veterinary College UK
University of Edinburgh UK
University of Southampton UK


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