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New Recruits for French Prion Research

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Science  01 Dec 2000:
Vol. 290, Issue 5497, pp. 1671a
DOI: 10.1126/science.290.5497.1671a

PARIS—As panic over “mad cow disease” engulfs France and threatens to spread to other countries in Western Europe, French research minister Roger-Gérard Schwartzenberg last week unveiled detailed plans for spending $27 million the government has earmarked for prion disease research in 2001. Next year's budget for studying prions —infectious, abnormal proteins linked to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and its human form, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD)—will triple France's current prion research spending.

Earlier this month, both Spain and Germany reported their first BSE cases, sparking fears of a major Europe-wide epidemic. In France, meanwhile, the sharp jump in BSE cases this year prompted the government to respond with a whopping increase for prion research (Science, 17 November, p. 1273). Some of the new cash will be spent to recruit 100 researchers and technicians in 2001, including 25 postdocs, to add to the 240 scientists now working full- or part-time on prion diseases in France, Schwartzenberg said at a 23 November press conference. Another 20 researchers will be recruited in 2002 and 2003. “It is good we will be able to pay” researchers and technicians, says immunologist Jean-Yves Cesbron of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, but the extra resources have come “a bit late.” Cesbron wonders where the postdocs will be found and is worried that the French prion research effort will be too dispersed. “Very few laboratories working in this area have critical mass,” he says.

The cash infusion also will be used to expand current research efforts (see table) and fund entirely new projects, such as work at the University of Montpellier using lemurs to study how prions cause disease in primates. A major focus will be animal models for prion diseases, including transgenic mice, cattle, and sheep. The beefed-up research effort catapults France to nearly the same level as the United Kingdom—the country the hardest hit by both BSE and vCJD—in prion research spending. The U.K. government spends about $34.4 million a year, with an additional $1.4 million coming from the Wellcome Trust charity. France is now “well placed compared to other European countries,” Schwartzenberg said. Although the spending boost comes hard on the heels of what the French press has called the country's budding “national psychosis” over BSE, Schwartzenberg played down suggestions that the panic itself fueled the increase. This is “not the principal” reason, he said. “We are convinced that the increase in the number of [BSE] cases … justifies a greater research effort.”

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