Mad Cow Risks First
Reported...In 1976
From Cheryl Magill <>
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 disease deaths.
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 pituitary glands.
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 warning.
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 payouts.
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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