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Published by Communications and Public Affairs 519 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

September 06, 2006

Engineers Develop Detector for Mad Cow, Other Prion Diseases

Two University of Guelph engineers have received substantial research funding to continue developing a simple, inexpensive sensor for quick detection of brain-wasting infections related to mad-cow disease.

Profs. Gordon Hayward and Warren Stiver, School of Engineering, will use almost $200,000 in federal funding to further develop a device intended to pinpoint cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease in cattle, and related forms of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or prion diseases.

The Guelph researchers received a two-year, $178,000 grant from PrioNet Canada, a recently established national Network of Centres of Excellence for research on BSE and related diseases. The agency provided a total of $3 million over two years for 10 projects across Canada on everything from vaccine development for BSE to the impact of prion diseases on farm family community health.

“We were thrilled with the number of applications,” said Neil Cashman, PrionNet’s scientific director. “Prion diseases have devastating economic, social, environmental and health consequences.”

Scientists believe that these fatal illnesses of the central nervous system are caused by proteins called prions that convert normal proteins into an infectious form. The incurable diseases, including variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, cause sponge-like holes to develop in brain and nervous tissue.

The U of G engineers have developed an acoustic prion sensor whose quartz crystal detects the telltale misfolding of prion proteins from samples of nerve tissues, bodily fluids and environmental samples.

Working with scientists at the National Reference Laboratory of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ottawa, Hayward and Stiver have shown that their device can distinguish between normal samples and brain tissue of sheep infected with scrapie and deer with chronic wasting disease.

The sensor provides results in about two hours, at least as fast as conventional tests using antibodies. A convenient, rapid assay to pinpoint infected individuals could avoid the need to cull entire herds of cattle suspected to have BSE.

Referring to their earlier work funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Hayward said: “We have proven the principle. We plan to expand the evidence and answer important questions to support development of a commercial device.”

Their new funding will allow them to continue developing the device, including testing it for use on urine and blood samples. They hope to find a commercial partner to produce the sensors for wider use, likely by laboratory or veterinary diagnostics companies.

As of late August, eight cases of BSE have been detected in Canada since 2003. The initial case led the United States and other countries to close their borders to Canadian beef imports, a move that cost the Canadian economy about $6.3 billion before the U.S. ban was lifted in mid-2005.

Prof. Gordon Hayward
School of Engineering
519-824-4120, Ext. 53644

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Rachelle Cooper, Ext. 56039.

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