Mad cow blood test a step closer

Researchers have discovered that a simple test could detect mad cow disease, and other brain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
At the moment the only way to test for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (abnormalities in brain tissue) and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, is through a risky biopsy.
But now in a major breakthrough, researchers from the University of Melbourne have found that a straightforward blood test may be able to detect the deadly disease as well as other brain diseases.
Using newly available genetic sequencing scientists discovered cells infected with prions, the infectious agent responsible for these diseases, release particles that contain easily recognised “signature genes”.
Associate Professor Andrew Hill from the University of Melbourne said these particles travel in the blood stream, making a diagnostic blood test a possibility.
The researcher’s genetic testing focused on a form of cell discharge called exosomes. If exosomes were infected with prions they were found to also carry a specific signature of small genes called microRNA’s.
“This might be a way to screen people who have spent time in the UK, who currently face restrictions on their ability to donate blood,” Hill said.
Mad cow disease is responsible for killing nearly 200 people in the UK who consumed meat from infected animals in the late 1980s.
Since 2000, the Australia Red Cross Blood Service has not accepted blood from anybody who lived in the UK for more than six months between 1980 and 1996, or who received a blood transfusion in the UK after 1980.
Lead author Dr Shayne Bellingham said the breakthrough might also help detect other human neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“This is an exciting new field where we can test for conditions in the brain and throughout the body, without being invasive,” he said.
The research is published in the Oxford University Press Nucleic Acids research journal. The study was undertaken at the University of Melbourne, with assistance from the Mental Health Research Institute of Victoria, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.

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