- Health experts including an Australian professor knew
of the potential dangers of contaminated human growth hormone years before
the first Creutzfeldt-Jakob virus deaths occurred and experimental programs
halted, British court documents reveal.
- Correspondence dating from the mid-'70s presented to
a British judicial inquiry reveal a paper trail between the United States'
National Institutes of Health and the British Government indicating the
infectiousness was foreseen, the Los Angeles Times reports.
- Moreover, a safer method for purifying human growth hormone
drugs had long been available, but scientists involved in the experiments
had ignored it in favor of a cheaper, less labor-intensive option.
- The use of the hormones, taken from human cadavers and
given to promote growth in tens of thousands of people worldwide, was banned
internationally in 1985, a year after the first of dozens of Creutzfeldt-Jakob
- CJD is the human equivalent of "mad cow disease".
- The head of Australia's National CJD Surveillance Unit
at the University of Melbourne, Professor Colin Masters, said the Times
report was largely correct, but defended himself against the newspaper's
claim that he failed to widely promulgate his opinion of the dangers in
1978, when he was working in the field in the US.
- His laboratory published warnings in an international
medical journal, he said.
- Australia has recorded five CJD deaths of hormone recipients
and no new cases since 1990, compared to 22 deaths so far in the United
States and 36 in Britain. CJD continues to spread worldwide.
- The US has refused to follow Australia's and Britain's
lead into a judicial inquiry and subsequent compensation to victims, claiming
suffering and deaths from the disease, which turns people's brains to
sponge, were unforeseeable.
- Professor Masters criticised as hyperbole claims by the
Times that it had "unearthed" the court documents which had been
in the public domain since being presented to the British judicial inquiry
three years ago.
- It appears, however, that the significance of the documents
has not been previously highlighted.
- In October 1976, Scottish veterinary geneticist Dr Alan
Dickinson warned the British Medical Research Council of the danger posed
by its growth hormone program when he found that mice infected with the
sheep form of CJD, or scrapie, developed both infected and infectious
- Later that year, Dr Daniel Gajdusek of the US National
Institute of Health's neurological and communicative disorders laboratory,
reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that CJD could be spread
by corneal transplants and surgical instruments.
- A year after the publication, a member of the British
pituitary program wrote to Dr Gajdusek, seeking his opinion on Dr Dickinson's
- But Dr Gajdusek was on leave when the letter arrived
and it was answered instead by Colin Masters, then working in Dr Gajdusek's
laboratory, who wrote in response in 1978: "It would be reasonable
to expect that the pituitary gland and/or surrounding tissue taken from
a case of CJD disease would be contaminated with the virus."
- Professor Masters' letter was used by the British inquiry
two decades later to help determine a back date for victims' compensation
- The Times reports that Professor Masters "never
made good" an offer to test a safer method for removing CJD contamination
from growth hormone.
- Professor Masters told The Sunday Age last week that
he recalled a letter from "somebody in the British hierarchy"
and that he may have offered to "look at (the issue) further".
To the best of his knowledge, that was the end of the correspondence between
the laboratory and the British pituitary program. "I was a junior
in the laboratory at the time," he said.
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