Don't starve this BSE research of vital funds The Times


The implications are so far-reaching, it would be immoral to stop work now

At the end of this month the money runs out for a research programme that must rank as one of the most important in medical science today. It examines the real cause of BSE in cattle; it challenges the theory that eating contaminated meat leads to CJD; and it suggests the remarkable possibility of a link between both these diseases and multiple sclerosis (MS), which kills 800 people in Britain every year. If Professor Alan Ebringer's findings are right, he is on the verge of a breakthrough in microbiology. His work at King's College London has been funded by the Government for the past two years, and last August he published a report which went a long way towards establishing the validity of his claims. He believes that he has identified the microbe responsible for the BSE epidemic that ravaged Britain in the early 1990s, and says that it may also be the one that gives rise to MS.

If he is right, the implications are far-reaching. The public's fears about meat safety could be allayed; a reliable test for BSE would mean that the slaughter of healthy cattle could be stopped; most important of all, it would be possible to reach an early diagnosis of MS and thus, eventually, to find a cure for this most damaging and intractable disease.

All this cries out for investigation. And yet, on December 31, Ebringer's grant comes to an end. Pressed on the issue in the House of Commons last month, Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), delivered the following statement: "I have no current plans to extend that funding, there is no question of the research being in any way suppressed; it is supported." No one could work out what she meant.

The reality, however, is simple. The King's College programme will be wound up. Ebringer will turn his attention elsewhere. He has some American funding to support his MS research, but if that is successful, the results will, of course, go overseas. In the meantime, he has been told that SEAC, the government agency set up to look at BSE and CJD, will consider his report in February - but he has been offered no assurances of future support. Without funds, and, more importantly, without government sanction for the work, he cannot go on.

It is a baffling decision, and there are no points for revealing that it comes from the bureaucratic depths of Defra, a government department whose nerveless grasp of science is becoming a positive embarrassment. Once again, a piece of scientific research which challenges established views is being ignored and suppressed. Like the scientists who recommended vaccination against foot-and-mouth disease, Ebringer has been sidelined - in direct contravention of the Phillips report into BSE, which recommended that alternative scientific theories be properly explored.

Yet no one reading the King's College paper could be other than excited by the direction Ebringer is taking. It is an absolute classic of scientific detective work. He challenges the theory first propounded by Professor Stanley Prusiner of San Francisco, and now generally accepted, that BSE was caused by prions, cell membrane proteins which are found in high concentrations in the brain tissue. Prusiner suggested that abnormal prions converted normal prions into infectious particles which went on to cause various diseases, such as BSE and CJD. His theory won him a Nobel prize.

Ebringer took another tack. An Australian-born microbiologist who came to Britain more than 30 years ago, he has spent a lifetime examining autoimmune diseases, such as MS, juvenile diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. They occur when the body's immune system starts working against itself, attacking its own brain cells as if they were hostile bacteria.

When BSE was first detected in the early 1980s, he and his colleague, the late Professor John Pirt, noted, from a TV news clip, that cattle with the disease lost control of their hind legs, just as the lower extremities of MS sufferers are the first to be affected. They wondered whether BSE was also an autoimmune disease, and set about identifying the microbe that might have caused it. They searched for one that had a protein resembling brain tissue which might have caused the body to attack itself.

They discovered it in Acinetobacter, a microbe commonly found in soil or contaminated water, which was first detected in Vietnam where it infected the wounds of American soldiers. The scientists deduced that it might have been picked up by cattle when offal from abattoirs was used in meat and bone meal. Ebringer found traces of the microbe in the brains of BSE-infected cattle, and discovered that their blood serum had developed the telltale antibodies of an autoimmune disease. It was an evidential link between MS in humans and BSE in cattle.

Ebringer is modest about his work. "It is a relatively old-fashioned approach," he says. But he admits that the implications are huge. Major reputations would be at stake if he were found to be right; government policy would have to be reshaped; the economics of farming reviewed; work on MS and other autoimmune diseases stepped up. But that is no reason for stopping research. Indeed, it should be the incentive for pressing on. As the veteran campaigner Tam Dalyell, MP, who has taken up the case, points out: "Funds should not be cut off just to protect reputations."

I have no idea whether Ebringer is right or wrong. But to withdraw funding just at the point where his theory is waiting to be tested is not only an insult to science, it is morally wrong. This is one decision that Mrs Beckett must change now.