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Mad Cow Disease From Blood Transfusion

An Isolated Case -- or the Beginning of a New Epidemic?

Mad Cows, Beef, and Blood continued...

"Transfusion must not be a very effective way of transmitting vCJD, or we would have seen many more cases by now," AuBuchon tells WebMD. "This is not something like hepatitis, that is easily spread. But we will do what we can to reduce the risk."

In response to public demand for action, U.K. blood centers are filtering white blood cells out of donated blood. But the experts who spoke with WebMD say this step is based on public relations, not on science. AuBuchon and Cashman agree that there's no evidence removing white blood cells makes blood transfusions safer.

Mad cow disease -- vCJD -- is caused by a weird protein, not a living germ. This kind of protein -- known as a prion -- has the bizarre ability to transform normal brain proteins into new prions. Eventually, this process clogs up the nervous system.

There's no treatment, and no simple test for the mad cow prion. Cashman and others are working to develop diagnostic tests. And Cashman's team is getting ready to test a new vCJD vaccine in mice.

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