Lab closure will hit 'burger bug' research

'The disease is a time bomb waiting to go off'
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Medical Correspondent

Vital research into a new strain of food poisoning bacterium known as the "burger bug" which has killed dozens of children and elderly people is threatened by a Scottish laboratory's closure, scientists warn.

The Food Science Laboratory at Torry, Aberdeen, is at the forefront of investigations into E.coli 0157, which is spread in under-cooked beef and in milk and cheese, and was unknown before 1982. There were more than 600 cases in Britain last year. Scotland has one of the highest incidences in the world, but no one knows why.

Torry's lab, part of the Government's Central Science Laboratory, has been earmarked for closure with the loss of 100 jobs, because ministers say it is financially not viable. Some staff may relocate to York, but research teams will be disrupted.

Dr John Coia, consultant microbiologist at Western Infirmary in Edinburgh said: "There is no other facility for this work in Scotland. If you break up a nucleus of specialist researchers like this you can never re-create it to the same standard."

Torry scientists are part of a three-pronged research initiative which includes the Department of Microbiology at Aberdeen University and the Scottish Agricultural College at Thurso, investigating the food, human, and animal links in the spread of E.coli 0157. Collaboration has led to a "typing" system to identify strains, and track down an outbreak's source. The UK's largest so far was in West Lothian last year and affected 100 people. Scientists traced the infection source to a dairy.

Hugh Pennington, professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, described the spread of E.coli 0157 as "a time bomb waiting to go off".

Dr John Curnow, consultant in communicable diseases at Grampian Health Board, said the prevalence of enteric [E.coli] disease in north-east Scotland was rising. "We don't really know why but we need good research facilities to follow up our preliminary thoughts with real scientific vigour."

The lab, which opened in 1929, is also the UK centre for shellfish toxin- level testing, and for the identification of natural and bacterial toxins in foods.

The E.coli 0157 bacterium releases toxins which cause bloody diarrhoea, severe cramps and vomiting. Up to 30 per cent of patients develop kidney problems, and up to 10 per cent of that group may die. The Public Health Laboratory Service said yesterday that the bacterium had a "predilection for children and, although the numbers are comparatively small, the potential effect is much more serious than other food poisoning".

The Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food, last week urged more government-funded research into E.coli 0157 and a public education campaign.

Dr Norman Simmons, a consultant microbiologist at Guy's Hospital, who chaired the committee report, said hundreds had been left with permanent kidney damage.