LONDON - The U.K. Department of Health (DOH) is to fund the development of a diagnostic test for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in blood supplies, based on prion antibody technology developed by Proteus International plc, of Macclesfield, Cheshire.

“We are not talking about a license at this stage,“ said Arthur Rushton, development director of Proteus. “We will be supplying materials and know-how as part of a research collaboration. Assuming success in developing the test, downstream benefits will be allocated according to inputs.“

Although there is no direct evidence of transmission of the brain disease via blood transfusions or blood products, there is theoretical risk from the new variant CJD, based on mouse studies which show spongiform brain diseases can be transmitted intravenously. New variant CJD is believed to be caused by eating beef from cows that suffered from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

DOH will put £500,000 (US$818,650) into the research program, which is expected to last two to three years. However, Rushton said it should become evident within six months if it will be possible, based on Proteus' technology, to develop a robust diagnostic test for new variant CJD in blood.

The company already has developed a postmortem test for BSE, which is being used commercially in Ireland to test meat for the Supervalu supermarket chain. Several U.K. supermarkets have expressed interest in the test, but Rushton said they are holding off pending the outcome of an investigation sponsored by the European Union into ways of testing for the disease.

Rushton believes that if a test for new variant CJD is developed, it will have to be applied to all 2.5 million blood donations made in the U.K. each year. “You have to look at it on the same basis as testing for HIV and hepatitis B,“ he said. “These diseases are far more prevalent, and there is a known risk of transmission. But if there were a test [for CJD], you couldn't selectively apply it to some donations and not others.“ *