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Europe Launches Massive Brain-Disease Program

LONDON--The specter of a fatal disease that eats away brain tissue has scared up serious new money for European scientists. The European Commission today announced a $64 million research program on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), the family of neurodegenerative diseases that includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)--popularly known as mad cow disease--and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

European research ministers had approved the program in early October, but a row ensued between commission officials and the French government over whether the money should come from current European Union research funds or from the commission's internal budget. The issue of funding, in fact, is not yet settled. The commission said today it has on hand $20 million for the program, and that the remaining $44 million must come from supplementary funds for the fourth European Framework Programme, which covers all European research spending from 1994 to 1998. The additional funds, however, have yet to be approved by the European Parliament.

The new program is "good news," says neuropathologist Adriano Aguzzi of the University Hospital of Zurich in Switzerland. Aguzzi, who evaluates grant applications submitted to the commission, says many good proposals are now being turned away. Such centralized funding is particularly needed for BSE research, he says, "because of the need for an international infrastructure" to fund expensive long-term animal experiments on TSE infectivity.

The plan will focus on five priority research areas identified by a blue-ribbon panel earlier this year. They are:

     * clinical, epidemiological, and social research on human TSEs

     * the infectious agent and its transmission mechanisms

    * TSE diagnosis

    * evaluation of the risk of contracting TSEs; and

     * treatment and prevention of TSEs

Not all scientists are enamored of the chosen priorities. Those identified "are clearly very practically oriented," says molecular biologist Chris Bostock of the Institute for Animal Health in Compton, England. While applied research is necessary, "that should not be at the expense of basic research," Bostock says, because "we know so little about these diseases."

If the European Parliament and Council of Ministers approve the supplementary funding, which the commission says is "indispensable," a call for proposals will be issued in early 1997 under three framework programs: biomedicine and health, biotechnology, and agriculture and fisheries.