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From: TSS (
Subject: NIH lab shutdown raises concerns about US prion research
Date: September 2, 2004 at 1:55 pm PST

Nature Medicine 10, 884 (2004)
NIH lab shutdown raises concerns about US prion research
Tinker Ready


Closing of the agency's only internal prion lab raises concerns
When the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) closed a pioneering prion research lab last month, the timing seemed a bit off.

British researchers had just identified a second case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) transmitted through a blood transfusion. The UK Medical Research Council is set to launch a trial of potential vCJD treatments, but there are no such trials in the US. A report released last winter by the National Academy of Sciences says the US research program on prion diseases is "small, aging, and inadequately funded."

The NIH quickly responded that the lab's closure is meant to address those concerns, not exacerbate them. The Laboratory for Central Nervous System Studies, founded in the 1960s, was narrowly focused on the transmissibility and infectiousness of prion diseases, says Eugene Major, acting director of basic neuroscience programs at the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The agency now wants to develop a broader intramural program that includes research on prion structure and circulation, Major says. "This is the time to look at where the field is going in order to ask the most important questions."

Major notes that lab chief Paul Brown's retirement is just the latest of many exits. The lab's founder, D. Carleton Gajdusek, won a Nobel Prize in medicine for his work tracing the 'kuru' disease in New Guinea to the ritual consumption of human brains. Gajdusek left the NIH in 1997 after pleading guilty to charges of sexually abusing one of many boys he informally adopted during his fieldwork.

His successor, Joe Gibbs, died in 2001. Earlier this year, Brown described himself to the Wall Street Journal as "the last living relic" of that team and complained that his lab had no funding. The NIH has not yet decided how it will realign the work done in Brown's lab, but it will probably reflect the agency's new drive for cooperation between various institutes, Major says.

Last month, for instance, scientists began moving into the $261 million Porter Neuroscience Research Center, designed to encourage collaboration. Instead of small, isolated labs, a full third of the center's space is devoted to a large, open lab surrounded by walls of windows. The goal is to have researchers from as many as 11 different institutes work there. NIH officials expect to announce a plan in September to promote the same kind of collaboration among extramural neuroscience researchers.

Over the years, the NIH has increasingly farmed out research on prion diseases to extramural researchers. A review of the agency's grants database turns up 121 grants with the word 'prion' in the title for 2004, compared with 46 in 1994.

Still, it would be helpful to have a central government facility, says neurologist Richard Johnson, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee. Individual investigators cannot tackle certain high-risk projects that require infrastructure and long-term support, Johnson notes. Although he is confident that the NIH is moving in the right direction, he says, "It's a different kind of commitment that universities can't provide."


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