Federal panel to study prion diseases

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Government officials in September announced formation of a federal interagency working group to identify gaps in scientific knowledge about abnormal prion proteins, which are believed to be the causative agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and other diseases.

The group, which is not yet established, will also promote coordination of prion research projects by federal agencies.

"Although a significant amount of research has been conducted worldwide on prions in the past decade, there are still many vital questions for which we don't have answers," said John H. Marburger, PhD, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. The National Science and Technology Council, which is overseen by the OSTP, will supervise the working group.

"The working group will help coordinate federal agency efforts to identify research needs, (and) share resources and expertise to gain greater understanding in addressing this threat to public health," he said.

The Department of Agriculture proposed the working group in July following an Institute of Medicine report providing guidance for a national prion research program. Released in January 2004, the report recommended basic research identifying the structural features of prions, mechanisms by which prions reproduce themselves, mechanisms by which transmissible spongiform encephalopathies cause disease, and the physiologic function of the normal prion protein.

"We believe that a coordinated research effort to address these types of crucial questions about abnormal prions and TSEs is the most effective route to understanding and dealing with the threat that these diseases pose for our wildlife, livestock, and human population," said Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

Tommy G. Thompson, Health and Human Services secretary, emphasized the importance of coordination of the federal government's prion research. "This new interagency working group provides us with a unique opportunity to catalyze research by sharing the perspectives and expertise of scientists throughout the federal government to address an important national health concern," Thompson said.

The working group will be composed of members nominated by federal agencies interested in prion science. The group will meet regularly to discuss new scientific findings about prions, identify gaps in knowledge about these proteins, and communicate research needs to federal agencies so that they can consider carrying out specific prion-related projects.