Top 'mad cow disease' research scientists lose jobs in cash cuts

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THE jobs of 15 scientists investigating the links between mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are to be axed because of a lack of Government funds.

The scientists are at the Edinburgh Neuropathogenesis Unit, part of the Institute of Animal Health. It is one of the key research centres investigating links between mad cow disease, otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, and its human equivalent, CJD. With only 50 staff in total at the unit, the job losses are expected to hamper its research capability.

The cuts - which were immediately denounced by Gavin Strang, Labour's agriculture spokesman, as "a national scandal" - come as concern grows about the possible links between BSE and CJD. The agent that causes the diseases remains a mystery and the unit is trying to develop tests to identify it.

Professor John Bourne, the director of the institute, said job cuts were necessary because its pounds 5m grant from the Office of Science and Technology had been reduced by pounds 300,000 over the past three years. He is expecting a further pounds 500,000 cut in the Ministry of Agriculture's pounds 5m research grant.

Alan Dickinson, a former director of the unit, said: "The Government does not know what it is doing. The public is absolutely terrified of this disease and yet they do not seem to realise it."

He said that the risk of mad cow disease spreading to humans was remote and had to "be kept in perspective". But he added: "The amount of BSE around is absolutely enormous and as the quantity goes up so does the risk. I'm a happy beef-eater but I will never eat processed meat."

Mr Strang said that the redundancies should be reversed. "What is remarkable is that the ministry has not ring-fenced the work being done on BSE and CJD."

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture said that the budget for all BSE and CJD research would be increased by pounds 1m to pounds 6.4m next year. The ministry was committed to maintaining research but had not decided who should get the funds.

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