WASHINGTON, May 31 (UPI) -- The National Institutes of Health apparently has reversed its position on the fate of an invaluable collection of brains from people afflicted with a condition similar to mad cow disease, saying in a letter to a U.S. senator it will not destroy the collection.
An NIH official had told United Press International previously that the brain collection, which consists of samples from hundreds of people who died from the brain-wasting illness called Creutzfeldt Jakob disease, could be discarded if another entity does not claim them.
That sparked an outcry from patient-advocacy groups, consumer watchdogs and scientists, and the agency now appears to have backed away from that course.
"All the brains and other tissues with potential to help scientists learn about CJD are, and will continue to be, conserved," Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, which oversees the brain collection, wrote in a May 10 letter to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Cornyn had inquired about the status of the collection in April.
Last March, Eugene Major, acting director of the basic neuroscience program at the NIH, told UPI the useful portions of the collection had been doled out to scientists and the remaining samples had "very little remaining value" and could be destroyed.
Landis could not be reached for comment Tuesday. NINDS spokesman Paul Girolami told UPI he had been unable to locate her.
Scientists think the collection, which dates back to 1963, is invaluable for research on CJD and similar diseases and could even provide insight into treatments. There is no cure for CJD and patients typically die within a year after symptoms begin.
"Absolutely, the collection is worth keeping," Bruce Johnson, a former NIH scientist who said he had been told the collection would be destroyed in two years if no one took the samples from the agency, told UPI.
The Memorial Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases Inc., a non-profit organization consisting of more than 40 researchers from several countries, offered to take the collection off of NIH's hands more than a year ago and so far has not heard anything from the agency, Harry Peery, MIND's executive director, told UPI.
CJD belongs to a group of incurable and fatal 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.
Variant CJD, or vCJD, is a relatively new TSE, which people can contract from consuming beef products infected with the mad cow pathogen.
Despite Landis' assurance the collection will be preserved, some family members of the patients who donated their brains to the NIH are still skeptical. This is because the wording Landis used in the letter leaves open the possibility that some brain samples are being destroyed.
"The tissues that are discarded are those that have either decayed to an extent that renders them no longer appropriate for research or those for which we do not have sufficient identification," Landis wrote.
"Which ones" are being destroyed? asked Terry Singeltary, who is involved with several CJD patient groups.
"With a system like this, they could destroy whatever and whenever they wanted, for whatever reason they wanted," Singeltary, whose mother died of CJD in 1997, told UPI.
"It's a perfect excuse to discard some suspicious tissue resembling vCJD or some atypical TSE related to animal TSEs in the USA," he added.
Although the collection includes samples from CJD patients as young as 16 that could make them candidates for possible vCJD, the brains have never been screened for evidence of the disease. The only confirmed vCJD case in the United States occurred in a Florida woman who is thought to have contracted the disease in England.
Johnson said he along with renowned CJD expert Paul Brown were in the process of sorting through the samples to match them up with patient identification documents until they both retired. Some of the samples may prove impossible to identify, he said, but he and Brown are the only ones familiar enough with the collection to organize it and neither has been asked back by the agency to aid in the identification process.
Steve Mitchell is UPI's Medical Correspondent. E-mail: email@example.com