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Researchers develop faster, more accurate test for mad cow disease

NEW YORK, Sept. 7 As U.S. consumers seek reassurance that their hamburgers and steaks are free of deadly mad cow disease, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco say they may have found a promising solution. They've developed a faster, more reliable test for identifying the disease, possibly even in living cows. Current tests can only detect the disease after the cow dies.

The test was described today at the 226th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

Critics argue that the standard immunoassay tests used to identify the infectious prion proteins that cause mad cow disease are inadequate for large scale screening of cattle. The tests can produce false readings and may take a week to yield results. A better test is needed, they say.

The new test, which has already undergone animal studies, seems to fit the bill. Called the conformation-dependent immunoassay (CDI), it can detect prion proteins with 100 percent accuracy at much smaller levels than conventional tests and only takes about five hours to produce results, according to the UCSF researchers.

Like conventional tests, the new test is designed for detecting prions in the brain tissue of cows only upon autopsy. Unlike other tests, however, the new test also shows promise for detecting the proteins in muscle tissue and even blood while the animal is still alive. If so, it could be used to identify precisely which animals are infected before they show symptoms and could help end the current practice of slaughtering whole herds, the scientists say.

"This represents a new generation of prion tests," says project leader Dr. Jiri G. Safar, M.D., an associate adjunct professor at UCSF. "It is the most promising test to date for accurately detecting prion proteins," says Safar, a member of the school's Institute of Neurodegenerative Diseases.

He says the test has been used in a field trial to check f
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