Reporter 402, 19 May 1997


Leeds team puts brain test under the microscope

The outbreak of BSE in cattle and its probable link to a human equivalent has given new urgency to the quest for a reliable, painless and risk-free test for the fatal human brain disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Dr Harash Narang believes he has found such a test. He has joined a Leeds team, led by Dr Leslie Bridges, which has been given nearly £200,000 by the Medical Research Council to determine whether or not it will work.

Dr Narang has spent 27 years searching for the cause of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and CJD. From early in his career his work has been informed by a strong belief. He says it is essential to find out if these diseases are incubating in apparently healthy bodies as early intervention allows treatment to be given. By developing a test it would be possible to detect the presence of the disease before the tell-tale symptoms become apparent.

During the 18 month research project the Leeds team will evaluate Dr Narang's test for CJD. The test, which analyses urine samples, is, as yet, unproven. The Medical Research Council is funding the project to determine whether the test works and, if it does, exactly how accurate it is.

Currently, the only definitive way of diagnosing CJD is by doing a brain biopsy – a major surgical procedure which places the patient under considerable risk. If the urine test developed by Dr Narang works, it would provide a simple alternative to major surgery and could be repeated without risk or inconvenience to the patient. CJD is invariably fatal, but the condition can be managed and the earlier a diagnosis can be made the better.

In early trials Dr Narang successfully identified samples infected with CJD and the MRC hopes the further trials at Leeds will show how reliable his test is. If the test does prove to be accurate it will be of major significance to other neurological diseases. The research will take the form of a blind evaluation of urine specimens provided by the National CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh. The urine will be concentrated and then examined under an electron microscope. Dr Narang believes the test he has developed may ultimately form the basis for tests for other neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.

Hopeful

Last year the Surveillance Unit reported a new variant of CJD in young people which they felt was "plausibly linked" to BSE. So far there have been 16 cases of the new variant and while it remains a rare disease there are fears of more cases to come. The researchers hope that the CJD project could also lead to a test for the cattle disease.

The agent that causes CJD is known as a 'prion', and while most researchers believe this prion is simply a protein Dr Narang thinks it is more complex than that. He has discovered specific genetic material which throws new light onto the agent that causes the disease. The Leeds team will explore this new angle as well as working on the test.

Dr Narang is "delighted to be coming to Leeds." He was made redundant from his position of health researcher at the Public Health Laboratory Service following funding cuts four years ago. Since then he has been supported by Northeast businessman Ken Bell, who made part of his fortune through the meat industry and had a close family member die from a neurological disease. He is now funding a PhD student who will be working with the Leeds team. Dr Narang says "I am hopeful about the BSE situation and think that, in time, the problems can be overcome."

Dr Leslie Bridges, Senior Lecturer in Neuropathology, who has been awarded the MRC grant to evaluate Dr Narang's test says that while the test is unproven "it would be invaluable if it were to work."

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