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Why BSE affected young people


Educating the public about BSE
Aaron Klug Scientist
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As far as humans were concerned, well, obviously one had to ban the bone meal, but there was the question of defending British beef, because people weren't buying on the continent. British beef was in great demand. And so one had to explain that the organism is in muscle in beef, not in muscle in beef, but in brains, sweetbreads, things of that sort, various kinds of tissues. There was enough evidence of that. So we published quite a number of things on BSE, trying to educate the public. I must say that in the early days I was a bit suspicious before I was President of the Royal Society of the idea of scrapie being produced by protein. I had really been around and there was a lady called Tikvah Alper... Tikvah Alper who from Durban. She was born in Durban. Her sister was a famous opera singer, and her father was a lawyer in Durban, and she was now at the Hammersmith, and she was studying this. It was rather rare at the time, and the reason I know this is because I was called in by the BBC. This was before the disease became well known, and she had said... and her studies of radiation showed, that there was an organism... ultra violet radiation, another kind of ionic radiation, had to be of a certain size. You see, you bombarded the alpha particles in which you can see the size of the target, and she'd also done UV studies, and found that they were not affected at all. This is studying scrapie. And so, it couldn't be a nucleic acid in various forms. So I was asked... I think Francis was asked to do this, to debate, and Francis wouldn't do it, he asked me if I would do it. And I said, well, I think it's unlikely, and we've never heard of any protein transmitting genetic information and so I was wrong, and Tikvah Alper was right. But this was... she actually has never been mentioned much, but she was very early on supporting it had to be a protein. It's interesting.

And of course, the man who stuck out for it was Prusiner, who later got the Nobel Prize, but already before the end of my time, I'd come to the conclusion that he was right. It was a protein only disease. In fact we made him a Foreign Member of the Royal Society before he got his Nobel Prize, because it was really something new, a protein only... though having said that, protein only, there seemed to be other factors associated with the degree of susceptibility. There was a thing he called 'protein X' and so on. So I learnt... I knew quite a bit about neuro degenerative disease, because we'd done work on Alzheimer's, so I was able to, myself, make some kind of judgement of at least who to appoint to these committees and so on. So the Royal Society is really a pretty good reservoir of advice and we went on afterwards with diseases... this is after my time, with foot and mouth disease, after my time, a kind of policy against foot and mouth. I was called in after my leaving the Royal Society to sit on diseases of livestock, which I found quite interesting. So the... I don't think there's any doubt about it, but there were various political crises on all this, you see, because the government wanted us to say that British beef was safe, that kind of thing.

I appeared on Newsnight. It wasn't... it wasn't Jeremy Paxman, it was the other man, I've forgotten his name now, a kind of minor Paxman figure, and you get asked these questions... can you say that this is absolutely safe? I'd been through that before with GM foods. Of course, you can't say it's absolutely... but you know... it's to the best of our knowledge, is pretty strong and so on. So it was quite an experience appearing on Newsnight and you get picked up by BBC car, whisked into a studio, and then you get whisked out again. Not the kind of thing I was used to. But I think we covered ourselves creditably. We produced a number of quite influential papers at the time. But it's all history now. But it turned out that the predictions about the infectivity, about the spread of new variant CJD in the human population were absolutely spot on. Roy Anderson predicted the number, and the number has been decreasing every year. As soon as the bone meal was... bone meal as it's called... of course it includes other sort of offal, basically it includes offal, was banned from animal consumption, so we had a hand in all that. MAFF itself... MAFF proved pretty useless. They didn't have very good scientific... and they were... the kind of experiments they were doing. We had various meetings at the Royal Society at which we invited people from MAFF and so on, and it was rarely... they were very poorly staffed, poorly advised and so on. This is the time when the Chief Veterinary Officer of MAFF announced to the world in general that British beef is safe, and there was no such thing. It couldn't come from eating meat and so on. It was really... there was a shakeup in MAFF afterwards. They hadn't hired... but because the kind of people who were being recruited into the Civil Service were not exactly the top echelons of science, but it did... this was an interesting exercise in which the government listened to some extent to scientists.

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: Newsnight, MAFF, Stanley Prusiner, Tikvah Alper, Roy Anderson

Duration: 6 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008