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Urine test may flag mad cow disease in live cattle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Canadian researchers said on Friday they have found a possible way to test living cattle for mad cow disease, using protein traces in urine.

Cattle wait to be loaded onto trucks after sale at Uttoxeter cattle market June 10, 1998. DC/EB

They found a pattern of proteins in the urine of cattle infected with the disease, known scientifically as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE.

This pattern could form the basis of a urine test that could be used to check cattle for the illness -- which in turn could greatly ease the way cattle are now tested.

Current tests require samples of brain tissue to detect misfolded prions -- a protein fragment that causes BSE and related diseases. They take several days to run and cannot be used on live animals -- or people.

“We are hopeful that the knowledge that we’ve gained from this study will eventually lead to a live test,” Dr. David Knox, a researcher at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, said in a statement.

“It may be possible to develop similar tests for other species as well, including humans with Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD). A urine test for CJD could assist doctors to narrow down potential diagnoses for people with dementia.”

Writing in the BioMed Central journal Proteome Science, the researchers said they compared the urine of four BSE-infected cattle with that of four healthy cattle.

The pattern of protein changes was 100 percent accurate in detecting cattle with BSE, they said.

“This is an important discovery and we are hopeful that it will eventually lead to a useful diagnostic test that will simplify surveillance and reduce costs,” Stefanie Czub of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in a statement.

BSE swept through British dairy herds in the 1980s, forcing the slaughter of millions of cattle. It was traced to feeding cattle the remains of sheep, some of which were infected with a related disease called scrapie.

A few years later, people began developing a strange version of CJD, which is a brain-wasting illness that normally affects about one in a million people.

This new variant, called vCJD, was linked to eating BSE-tainted beef products. Only 167 cases have been reported since then but fears over the illness have roiled the beef trade and many countries revamped rules for feeding and slaughtering cattle.

The occasional new case pops us -- Canada has had 14 so far -- so agricultural officials are keen to find a quicker, cheaper and better test.

Reporting by Maggie Fox; editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Eric Walsh