New research allows for live Mad Cow testing

By Geoff MacIntosh

Carnivores may be able to chow down on hamburgers without fear soon, thanks to new research from the University of Calgary faculty of medicine.

U of C researchers have been looking at a new method to detect Mad Cow Disease by using blood samples from live cattle.

Currently, the only way to test for Mad Cow Disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, is by testing a slaughtered animal’s brain. Researchers hope that they can use blood testing to identify sick animals months or even years before an animal would typically show visible signs of the disease.

“[There are] three million people living in Alberta and six million cows,” said U of C professor and Sun Centre of Excellence for Visual Genomics director Dr. Christoph Sensen. “The problem is that we don’t know if these cows are safe. There’s very few instances of BSE. That’s actually the problem because we have to basically find some way to monitor all of the six million cows when they get slaughtered, but for maybe 10 cases ever.”

The concern with BSE comes from using the sick cattle as food for humans.

“If you eat the infected brain or nerves of a cow, you can get sick with a variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which is always lethal,” said Sensen. “You die. Period. The same is true for the cows, when they get BSE they will die for sure.”

The research is currently done on elk with Chronic Wasting Disease, which is very similar to BSE in cattle.

“We started with the elk because they developed the disease in two years,” said bio-informatics lab research assistant Paul Gordon. “It takes cattle at least four years to develop the disease so it’s a good model to start with.”

The blood-based test for BSE looks for small pieces of DNA circulating freely through the bloodstream that are released from cells under stress.

The DNA is found only in animals that have the disease, allowing for a quick test to show if an animal is sick.

“Now that we have identified the patterns, these kinds of tests can be done in the course of an hour or two,” said Gordon. “Previously this would take several days to do a protein-based technique. It’s about the practicality of doing testing.”

“This makes it a lot more viable and economically viable to use this kind of testing in slaughterhouses or in the food-processing chain without much cost to the producers,” he continued. “That’s really the goal of this, simplifying the testing procedure and finding it earlier.”

The work being done on elk has far to go before it can be used to test cattle across the world.

The test for BSE cannot be affected by other cattle-related diseases and has to work across all breeds.

“There’s certainly no scientific impediments to it, it’s a question of getting funds and the will to do it,” said Gordon.

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