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Key DNA may lead to BSE blood test

Scientists at the University of Calgary say they may have found a common DNA denominator in animals infected with diseases such as BSE.

And that, in turn, may mean BSE could eventually be confirmed simply and cheaply by a live blood test.

A reasonably accurate method of testing live cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) would likely be the grail of BSE research. Confirming BSE currently means examining chunks of a dead animal’s brain tissues.

“There is currently no reliable way to tell if an animal may have a prion infection before it becomes obviously sick,” said Kevin Keough of the Alberta Prion Research Institute. “If there were a reliable way to know, it would be of great benefit to producers, processors and wildlife managers.”

Researchers at Calgary and in Germany studied 19 elk, including a healthy group and a group infected with chronic wasting disease — a relative of BSE in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people.

The research also included 16 BSE-infected and non-infected cattle.

Between those groups, the university said in an online newsletter Thursday, the researchers were able to identify specific DNA sequences in blood samples of live animals infected with BSE or CWD.

“The next steps are to analyze a time course series for BSE-infected cattle, to screen different cattle breeds for variances in the sequence patterns and also to look at cattle with brain tumors, brain trauma and other brain infections to make sure we are really picking up BSE,” said Dr. Christoph Sensen, the principal investigator from Calgary’s faculty of medicine.

Once that’s done, Sensen said, “our team sees the possibility for the production of a low-cost, high-output standard test kit for industry use in the next few years.”

If those next steps pan out as hoped, a BSE blood test kit would likely be cheaper than currently used post-mortem BSE tests, available at a price that would be affordable for most farmers.

At a sufficiently low cost, “it would be possible to certify live animals and beef to be ‘BSE-tested’ and to keep the export channels open at all times,” said veterinarian Stefanie Czub, a study co-author and head of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s BSE laboratory.

Another research group on the Prairies has been working on a parallel path, after having found levels of a telltale protein in cattle urine indicated the presence of BSE with “100 per cent accuracy,” but in a small sample set.

That research group includes staff from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML), working with others from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the University of Manitoba and Germany’s Federal Research Institute of Animal Health.

The Manitoba group’s finding — that disease progression could be monitored based on changes in the abundance of a set of proteins — could have applications for the assessment of potential treatments, observers said when the urine research went public in September.

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