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Health: Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

Volume 728: debated on Monday 13 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their proposals for continuing research into human and animal transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

My Lords, the Government continue to invest considerable funds in this research. I am pleased to note that the risk from BSE has declined significantly, and that cases of variant CJD peaked in 1999 and have declined ever since. The Government intend to continue to fund this research in order to ensure that policies are based on the best possible science and that there is evidence of efficacy, safety and cost-benefit for any measures implemented.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that encouraging reply, because there have been rumours that the TSE research by the Health Protection Agency at Porton Down was to be “downsized”, as they say. Does the noble Earl agree that it is very important that we retain our knowledge acquired since the 1950s, when researchers were looking at scrapie, and that it is rather dangerous to put all our eggs in one basket? We ought to encourage lots of researchers to keep up to date, because these little prions seem to have naughty ways. What is happening to the archives for TSE conditions, which really ought to be called neurodegenerative diseases?

My Lords, the Government are committed to continuing research in TSEs. Many fundamental questions remain unanswered and the research is, by its nature, long term. Considerable funding is provided by a number of bodies—not only the Department of Health, but the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Defra and the Food Standards Agency. The total funding last year was in excess of £20 million, and I should add that the DoH funding is ring-fenced. That funding to key institutions ensures that expertise is maintained and continued in the UK.

As for the archive of research data, I agree with the noble Countess. The Government are committed to this research, as I have mentioned, and to surveillance, so our data and resources will remain accessible through peer-review publication systems for sharing material and through continuing liaison with the research community.

In making decisions about funding, do the Government recognise that the research into prions and TSEs may be only the tip of the iceberg, and that prions may be implicated in a whole range of other protein-folding abnormalities, including Alzheimer’s and amyloid disease? In asking that question, I must declare an interest, because research in the field is carried out in my own university, Cardiff University.

My Lords, I am aware of emerging findings in that sense. We welcome, of course, any significant findings from research, and my department has indeed part-funded some of the studies that the noble Baroness may have been referring to. Future funding applications for new studies will be considered, as they always are, on a case-by-case basis. These decisions are dependent on, among other things, existing research in progress and the availability of funding. However, this is an interesting area.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this country is a world leader in research into spongiform encephalopathies and the role of prions generally? Nevertheless, what we know about this area remains a great deal less than what we do not know. In those circumstances, will he answer what I think was behind the noble Countess’s original Question? Is the amount of money devoted to funding this research continuing at the same level, or is it actually being reduced?

My noble friend asks a very good question. Over 20-odd years, we in this country have invested almost £0.5 billion in research into TSEs. That is a significant amount of money. The total amount is declining, but that is because in the early days it was important to invest in research to ascertain the pathogenesis of this condition in cattle in particular. We are much further forward in understanding how this disease develops in cattle. Nevertheless, as I indicated to the noble Countess, important questions remain unanswered, and I think we will continue to see this research funded well into the future.

My Lords, what is happening about the P-Capt filter for prions? Are we not lagging behind Ireland and China in this research?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that the independent Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs—SaBTO—has advised that there is evidence that a particular filter can reduce potential infectivity in a unit of red blood cells. It has recommended the introduction of filtered blood to those born since 1 January 1996, subject to a satisfactory clinical trial to assess safety. We are undertaking an evaluation of the costs, benefits and impacts to inform a decision on whether to implement that recommendation, and we are awaiting the results of clinical trials, which are expected in early 2012.

My Lords, following on from the noble Countess’s Question and linked to the need for continuing research, can the Minister assure the House that the scientific teams at the HPA and elsewhere will be kept together when the HPA has been broken up, and that during the period of establishing the independent health research agency the work will not be interrupted?

My Lords, we are keen to see a smooth transition in the creation of Public Health England, which will include the current HPA. The expertise in prion research in this country is largely independent of the HPA. There is expertise particularly in Edinburgh and in the national prion unit in London, but her point is well made.