Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), linked to BSE in cattle, is caused by infectious proteins called prions and a team including staff at Edinburgh University have now developed a new technique to detect even small quantities of the agents.
Professor James Ironside, head of the national CJD research and surveillance unit at Edinburgh University, said: "This is the first time we have been able to detect prions in the urine of patients with variant CJD. It opens the door to the development of a screening tool for people infected with CJD who do not show any symptoms, which is of particular concern for securing the safety of our blood supply."
Variant CJD can be transmitted by eating beef infected with BSE or by receiving a blood transfusion from a person who carries the infectious prions. It can take a long time for symptoms to appear and people can have the disease for years before they are diagnosed.
A total of 229 people, including 177 from the UK, have died from variant CJD since it was first identified.