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Science was blamed for BSE


The appearance of BSE
Aaron Klug Scientist
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BSE, of course, properly known as Mad Cow Disease. Well that... did come out of the blue, so to speak, because people were mystified by this appearance of this disease which seemed to affect young people, and moreover the symptoms were similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which was well known and I had known something about because I was once on the committee... we were discussing a group in Edinburgh, an MRC... joint MRC/FRC discussing scrapie in sheep, to which BSE is totally related. But this now affected humans and with humans you have very different symptoms. You not only have the scrapie, you have the weakness on the feet, but you have both dementia occurring and also physical symptoms. And the order in which they appear though is different from classical CJD. So what happened is that the people tendered to go to psychiatrists, because the dementia appeared... the incipient dementia appeared to come first, whereas in classical Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, it's the other way round.

So at the beginning, it wasn't... it took some years before it began to be identified as a... called variant, new variant, nvCJD, and it started to happen in people. At the same time, there was a disease of cattle, which was like scrapie. The animals began to sink on their knees and so on. I don't think they scraped as indeed the sheep do. And it was hard to know what to do. The Government... this was slightly before my time, the government had set up a committee in which there was south... Southwood from Oxford and Epstein who was an expert on the Epstein Barr virus, and they began to trace it to... the human ones ... to the cattle. They appeared at about the same time. What was mystifying was that it seemed to be mostly in young people, and of course the Royal Society was called in. The various medical... there wasn't an Academy of Medical Sciences... the Royal College were... I mean, people were summoned in, but nobody could do anything about it. If there had been a proper Academy of Medical Sciences which did happen after my time, then that would have been the right body to deal with it, but we found ourselves in a position of having to speak scientifically for it, so we really found out quite a lot about it, CJD. As I said, I knew something about CJD, and we had Peter Lachmann who was a medically trained immunologist. He was Biological Secretary at the time... and so... so in the end we... oh, we were asked to give some advice, opinions on it really. The worry was that the... the worry was... was... how bad was, would be the BSE which was really, really flourishing... not flourishing... rampaging in the population, how would it affect the human? And it was a great mystery, a great mystery how humans were affected, and also from eating beef. And so... of course, the science was not well understood.

The nature of the infectious organism appeared to be a protein, an infectious protein, called prion, which had been suggested by Stanley Prusiner. People, people thought PR stood for protein, it also stood for Prusiner, because people didn't believe in a protein... of course, everybody thought that the infectious agent had to contain RNA or DNA, nucleic acid, which carries it. And I must say I myself had heard about scrapie many years before at the time of the... as I say, when we looked at a group in Edinburgh who were studying scrapie, and the... they wanted to shut it down, they wanted to shut down this work on scrapie, because... and this is highly relevant... because the incidence of CJD is one per million per year. This is worldwide. It's not a serious issue in public health. And scrapie, although it's interesting had been studied in Edinburgh, affects sheep and people had been eating infected scrapie meat for centuries and never been affected. So when it was suggested that this could have come from eating cattle who a disease similar to that, it met with great scepticism and people explained to me about the digestive system of the cow being different from that of the sheep and so on, but I never really understood that.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: Peter Lachmann, Stanley Prusiner

Duration: 5 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008