Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point

In Depth

On Air

Low Graphics

Monday, May 17, 1999 Published at 12:52 GMT 13:52 UK


BSE 'may never have posed human danger'

The government culled entire herds in response to health fears

BSE-infected beef may have never posed a risk to human health, researchers have said.

BBC Environment Correspondent Robert Piggott reports
Their studies seem to suggest it would be extremely unlikely that the disease would pass from cow to cow, let alone from cow to human.

They have now received funding from the Ministry of Agriculture to see if they can confirm their findings.

The UK Government banned some beef products as a result of public health fears, and many countries have banned the import of British beef.

It had been thought that eating beef from cattle suffering Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - or mad cow disease - could lead to a variant form of the human brain disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD).

Bacteria threat

The scientists involved in the research claim that CJD is in fact caused by the body's own reaction to a bacterium found commonly in contaminated water and the soil.

Professor Alan Ebringer assesses the impact of his work
This, they say, would explain such oddities as the fact that one of the victims of nvCJD was a vegetarian.

If they turn out to be right it would mean that the entire campaign to protect consumers by eradicating BSE - costing £3.5 bn, and wrecking the British beef industry - has been wasted.

The Ministry of Agriculture has offered Alan Ebringer, professor of immunology at King's College London, £250,000 to further his research.

Professor Ebringer told the BBC's World At One programme the work could have wide implications.

"If this theory can be confirmed by further studies it would indicate that meat is safe for human consumption, and there was never any danger of developing CJD by eating meat," he said.

Immune system disease

The principle he is examining suggests that BSE is similar to an autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune diseases are caused by the body attacking itself - immune cells think the body's own tissue is foreign and seek to eradicate it.

Professor Ebringer thinks BSE is caused by bacteria - called Acinetobacter - that are similar to brain cells.

He said: "When antibodies are made against the bacterium there are also auto-antibodies made against the brain tissue of the cow which then leads to the development of a neurological disease we call BSE."

The bacteria could be picked up from water, soil or feed, but a cow would have to be exposed to a lot of it to develop the disease, he said.

Minority position

He admitted that his theories put him in a minority.

Prevailing opinion suggests that nvCJD disease is caused by proteins called prions, and that it is possible abnormal prions could be passed on through infected meat.

Professor Ebringer said his position may have been drowned out by the "prion noise", but he remained undeterred in pursuing his research.

"All discoveries start with a minority of one so that the person who has made the discovery has to convince his colleagues and his peers that his data and evidence can be submitted to peer analysis," he said.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Health Contents

Background Briefings
Medical notes

Relevant Stories

01 May 99†|†Health
CJD mimics psychiatric disorders

15 Apr 99†|†Health
CJD victim's medical notes handed to newspaper

17 Mar 99†|†Health
CJD families to sue government

26 Feb 99†|†Health
CJD warning over surgery

10 Feb 99†|†Health
Sterilisation 'can spread CJD'

08 Jan 99†|†Health
CJD discovery in mice

19 May 98†|†BSE
The prion: simply mad

Internet Links

UK Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit

The BSE Inquiry

King's College London

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Disability in depth

Spotlight: Bristol inquiry

Antibiotics: A fading wonder

Mental health: An overview

Alternative medicine: A growth industry

The meningitis files

Long-term care: A special report

Aids up close

From cradle to grave

NHS reforms: A guide

NHS Performance 1999

From Special Report
NHS in crisis: Special report

British Medical Association conference '99

Royal College of Nursing conference '99