Millions of cows were sacrifised to save people from developing variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease as a result of consuming meat from animals infected with mad cow disease.
The official name for “Mad Cow Disease” is Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and is caused by proteins called prions. Both BSE and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob are both neurodegenerative diseases and because eating infected meat seems to lead to the development of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans BSE has generated a lot of attention.
Prions, the cause of BSE, are misfolded proteins and can spread between individuals. Some animals carry an allele that causes normal proteins to take the disease causing shape. Recently, scientists managed to genetically engineer cows in which this allele has been “knocked out”. The brain tissue from these genetically modified cows did not develop the disease when exposed to prions in the lab. Other cows are now being infected with BSE, to ensure they are indeed immune to it.
If these cows are to be used for food production, they still have to be approved by the FDA, however they could be another precaution to avoid BSE tainted meat of reaching the market. If approved, this type of application can be a big advancement in the commercialization of biotechnology, and the aim to use biotechnology to benefit consumers.
More results from this study can be expected later this year a the earliest, but it can take up to two years to detect mad cow disease in the infected animals.
Aside from benefiting meat production, this research can also help other scientists understand human brain-wasting diseases better.