NIH sends mixed signals on CJD brains

By STEVE MITCHELL, Medical Correspondent   |   April 7, 2005 at 3:30 PM

WASHINGTON, April 7 (UPI) -- A National Institutes of Health official who told United Press International the agency might destroy its collection of brains from human patients afflicted with a condition similar to mad cow disease reportedly has told the head of a patient-advocate group the collection would be preserved.

The official, Eugene Major, acting director of the basic neuroscience program at the NIH, has not responded to e-mail or a phone call from UPI seeking clarification of his remarks, and the official status of the collection remains unknown.

As reported by UPI on March 24, the collection is stored in freezers by the NIH's National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Md. It contains brains and other tissue samples from hundreds of people who died from the brain-wasting illness Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, as well as tissues from an untold number of experimental animals.

The consensus of scientists in this field is the collection, which dates back to 1963, is invaluable for research and could even provide insight into treatments for the fatal disorder. Currently, there is no cure for CJD and patients typically die within a year after symptoms begin.

Florence Kranitz, president of the non-profit advocacy group CJD Foundation, told UPI she had "a very long conversation" with Major, in which he told her the remaining tissues in the collection would not be destroyed.

"He reassured me in no uncertain terms," Kranitz said, noting constituents of the foundation and other CJD advocacy groups had been expressing concerns to her the tissues would be destroyed.

Kranitz, who has personal reasons for wanting the collection preserved -- her husband died of CJD in 2000 -- said she plans to meet with Major at the end of April to discuss the issue further.

CJD belongs to a group of diseases collectively known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs, that includes mad cow disease in cows, chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, and scrapie in sheep. All TSEs are incurable and fatal.

Major previously told UPI some samples already have been destroyed and others have been given to researchers at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center in Cleveland.

Major said the remaining collection "has very little remaining value" and could be destroyed if another entity does not claim them.

Bruce Johnson, a former NIH scientist who retired at the end of 2003, said he had been told the collection would be destroyed in two years if no one took the samples from the NIH.

In response to hearing that Major had failed to confirm to UPI the brain collection would not be destroyed, Patricia Ewanitz, who lives in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., and is founder of the advocacy group CJD Voice, said, "The brain tissue might not be indispensable to the National Institutes of Health but it is absolutely necessary to the families who thought enough of science to donate the brains, brain tissue and blood in hopes of someday finding an answer to why their loved one died."

Ewanitz, whose husband died of CJD in 1997, added, "It now seems like such a joke."

Terry Singeltary, whose mother passed away from a type of CJD in 1997, said the NIH should use the samples for scientific research, not just store them in freezers.

Both Singeltary and Ewanitz said they would feel more reassured if Major verified in writing the collection will not be destroyed.

"I would go further and ask Major what he plans to do with them," Singeltary said. "If the samples are just going to sit up there and go bad, then they should give them out to researchers looking for cause and cure."

The revelation the NIH might destroy part or all of the collection sparked an outcry from patient advocates, consumer groups and scientists.

Advocates have been contacting their members of Congress, urging them to investigate and prevent the NIH from destroying the brains. Consumer groups also have gotten involved and scientists have taken steps to obtain the collection or have urged Major not to destroy the samples.

Felicia Nestor, who serves as a consultant to Public Citizen, told UPI she had contacted certain legislators and at least one was considering looking into the situation. Nestor asked the legislator's name be withheld.

Kranitz said Major also told her he plans "to advertise in professional neurological journals and by whatever means necessary to make it known" to researchers in the field the tissues are available.

Major previously said, however, that efforts to inform researchers of the availability of the collection were already underway and included informing NIH grantees. He added he had personally notified researchers at scientific meetings, but no TSE researcher contacted by UPI was aware of this.

"I was never informed," said Laura Manuelidis, an expert on these diseases and section chief of surgery in the neuropathology department at Yale University. She said the first she had heard of the situation was in UPI's March 24 report.

Manuelidis also said she contacted Major, expressing interest in the specimens, but so far has not received a response.

"I sent a letter to (Major) on (March 25) about our interest in these specimens, but he has not replied," she told UPI in an e-mail.

Neil Cashman, a TSE expert at the University of Toronto, who said he was not aware the samples might be destroyed, has lobbied colleagues at the University of British Columbia -- where Cashman is scheduled to move to this summer -- to help draft a letter requesting the collection.

The Memorial Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases Inc., a non-profit organization consisting of more than 40 university and institute researchers from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and France, requested the collection in January, 2004. So far, the institute has not been informed of a decision by the NIH.

Asked if Major had told him whether the collection would be preserved, MIND Executive Director Harry Peery said, "We have heard nothing further from Eugene Major or anyone else at the NIH regarding the brain collection."

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E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

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