Deadly brain disease linked to bacteria

Sept. 9, 2002 at 5:04 PM
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KANSAS CITY, Kan., Sept. 9 (UPI) -- In a challenge to mainstream science, researchers at two American universities reported Monday the human version of madcow disease may be a micro-organism commonly found in insects.

If that is the case, doctors may be able to prevent or slow the brain degeneration associated with the disease by using antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs, said Jeanne Drisko, a physician of the University of Kansas and neuropathologist Frank Bastian of Tulane University.

Drisko and Bastian are investigating the possibility that a bacterium called Spiroplasma mirum, or one of its relatives, may be the cause of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, one of a family of illnesses characterized by sponge-like holes in the brains of victims.

The researchers hope to start a clinical trial soon to study the effects of anti-oxidants and antibiotics on people suffering from CJD.

About one in a million people is diagnosed with CJD every year, in the co-called sporadic form. But a variant form of the disease, dubbed vCJD, can affect people who eat beef from cows with bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- commonly known as madcow disease.

The current mainstream theory is that misshapen proteins, called prions, cause CJD, as well as other forms of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, such as scrapie in sheep, madcow disease in cattle, and chronic wasting disease in deer and elk.

Bastian told United Press International the prion exists, but "we don't know what role it plays in CJD." On the other hand, he said, earlier research has shown that spiroplasma bacteria can cause spongiform encephalopathies in rats. In a paper published last year, Bastian said he showed it is possible to tell the difference between scrapie-infected sheep brains and normal controls just by testing for spiroplasma. Furthermore, other researchers have shown the antibiotic tetracycline can stop scrapie infection, he said.

Bastian said he has found DNA identical to a spiroplasma gene in tissue from two CJD-infected brains but has not been able to find it in normal brain tissue.

Neil Cashman, a specialist in neurodegenerative diseases at the University of Toronto, called the idea "garbage."

Cashman told UPI that every time Bastian has been sent blinded samples of brain tissues, "he's been completely unable to distinguish between infected and non-infected animals and people."

Blinded samples mean the researcher working on them does not know which are infected. It is a common research technique designed to eliminate any bias on the part of the researcher.

Drisko told UPI her interest was piqued when she treated a woman suffering from CJD. The woman was unable to talk when she arrived at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

"She was pretty far advanced by the time she got here," Drisko said, but treatment with anti-oxidants -- drugs that combat some of the effects of a harmful form of oxygen called free radicals -- apparently restored the woman's ability to talk and prolonged her life.

Bastian said it may be that spiroplasma -- like some related micro-organisms -- actually flourishes in the presence of free oxygen radicals.

(Reported by Michael Smith, UPI Science News, in Toronto)

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