Government stops funding for BSE critic

MARGARET BECKETT has withdrawn funding from a scientist whose research is threatening to undermine government policy on food safety.

Professor Alan Ebringer, of King's 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 of meat.

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 Beckett's 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 King's College laboratory and winding up his experiments.

Professor Ebringer, who has had US as well as British funding, has become so disillusioned over the Government's 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 Ebringer's 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 meat.

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 Ebringer's 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."