'Mad Cow' Victims May Have
Unique Heart Signature

By Richard Woodman

LONDON (Reuters Health) - A medical researcher said on Wednesday that people suspected of having the human form of "mad cow" disease in Britain are to be offered a novel diagnostic test that may confirm the disease by measuring their heart rate.

Dr. Chris Pomfrett, lecturer in neurophysiology at Manchester University, said that research showed it was possible to pick up a "unique signature in heart rate variability" in animals infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

The human form of the illness, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), has claimed more than 100 victims in Europe. There is strong evidence that the invariably fatal illness is contracted by eating BSE-tainted beef.

"It proves the potential for a live test that is non-invasive and that will give a result within 5 minutes. There is no reason to believe it will not work in humans," Pomfrett told Reuters Health in a telephone interview.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Department of Health said it was funding the project as part of a £7 million boost to BSE and CJD research.

Pomfrett said his year-long research would "look at all suspects with vCJD"--currently seven people in Britain--who would be offered an ECG test to measure beat-by-beat variability in their heart rate and then followed to see if they developed the disease.

The aim is to confirm that the test can accurately diagnose the disease in humans before obvious symptoms develop. Early diagnosis might enable more patients to take part in experimental trials of drugs against the fatal disease.

Measuring heart rate variability is a standard tool to test brain stem function but has not previously been applied to vCJD.

Pomfrett said that heart rate normally speeds up slightly when people breathe in and falls when they breathe out. "What happens with BSE is that these changes are quite dramatic," he explained.

The reason is probably that the reflexes controlling heart rhythm pass through the medulla of the brain stem--the first area of the brain to go in BSE.

He said his research had involved 100 animals infected with BSE and 50 healthy "control" animals. Results showed it was possible to pick up the infected animals just by looking at heart rate variability.

In a statement on Wednesday, the UK Department of Health and other government agencies said that the extra £7 million would fund 22 new BSE and vCJD research projects.

"Researchers from the public and private sectors across the UK and Europe will be using a variety of novel approaches towards developing diagnostic tests for human and animal health," the agencies said.

The work includes five new projects to look for surrogate markers to diagnose BSE or vCJD before the onset of symptoms. Possibilities include fluctuation in levels of different proteins in the brain and other tissues.

The statement said another study would examine whether the presence of higher levels of the mineral manganese in the brain and other tissues of patients and animals could be associated with BSE and vCJD.

Ideas to generate new antibodies account for a further five projects. Four other studies will look at developing reliable blood-based tests using the latest scientific techniques such as proteomics.

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