Between 1986 and 2000, more than 190,000 animals were killed by a degenerative disease called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. Thirty years after this terrible epidemic, scientists believe they have identified its origin.
To date, there is no cure for this disease, but having a better understanding of it would allow us to be more prepared and efficient in the event of another epidemic. In fact, a new wave could very well be on its way, according to researchers from the University of the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), who conducted this study.
As the researchers explained in a press release, BSE belongs to a group of illnesses called prion diseases. Prions are proteins that can become pathogenic agents when altered. Until now, it was thought that prions were different in each species. But the researchers who ran this study found that the disease can actually be passed on between different species.
The first experimental explanation
To reach this conclusion, researchers injected genetically engineered mice with a scrapie variant to produce the bovine prion. In the end, they found that rodents ended up contracting BSE.
"These results are explained by the presence of small amounts of classical BSE," Dr. Olivier Andreoletti, lead author of the study, told AFP. "For the first time, we have data that provides a substantiated experimental explanation for the onset" of the mad cow disease epidemic, thirty years ago. It's a big step towards improving our understanding of the disease.
Given these initial conclusions, researchers urge governments and farmers to avoid the dangerous practices that may have led to this epidemic. These include feeding cattle flour that may contain the remains of other animals, especially cattle and sheep. Researchers warn that any recourse to these "non-virtuous practices" could increase the risk of us seeing another mad cow disease epidemic.