Select Committee on Agriculture Memoranda

Memorandum submitted by The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) (R 5)

  1.  The evidence set out below addresses the issue of the scale and focus of BBSRC's research into transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) with cross-references to relevant paragraphs of the Phillips Report.


  2.  The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) was established by Royal Charter in April 1994. It is funded principally through the science budget of the Office of Science and Technology (OST). The Council sponsors research both in the university sector and its own institutes. The BBSRC institutes also receive a proportion of their funding from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) through commissioned research and research support from other Government Departments, the EU and industry.

  The Council's mission is:

    —  to promote and support high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related postgraduate training relating to the understanding and exploitation of biological systems;

    —  to advance knowledge and technology, and to provide trained scientists and engineers, which meet the needs of users and beneficiaries (including the agriculture, bioprocessing, chemical, food, health care, pharmaceutical and other biotechnological related industries), thereby contributing to the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom and the quality of life; and

    —  to provide advice, disseminate information, and promote public understanding in the fields of biotechnology and the biological sciences.

Funding Mechanisms

  3.  BBSRC funding for TSE research is through two major routes:

    —  the Biology of the Spongiform Encephalopathies Programme (BSEP); and

    —  core funding to the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) which includes support for three aspects of TSE research:

      —  structure and function of prions;

      —  TSEs in sheep especially the pathogenesis of scrapie;

      —  epidemiology of TSEs.

Biology of the Spongiform Encephalopathies Programme

  4.  BSEP was initiated in 1991 in response to the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) epidemic and built on the existing expertise at the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) mainly at the Neuropathogenesis Unit (NPU) in Edinburgh. The aim of BSEP was to underpin the more strategic science funded by MAFF and the Department of Health and complement the fundamental research in relation to human health funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC). An additional aim of BSEP was to expand the scientific community in this strategically important area by attracting researchers into the field from other scientific disciplines. To date there have been four phases of the programme, the last in 1998. Each phase invited applications in response to specific priorities. Further details of how these research priorities were selected are described in paragraph 9.

  5.  Applications to BBSRC for undertaking research into TSEs are not confined to BSEP. BBSRC's policy is to support TSE projects that are submitted as part of the Council's normal grant awarding process.

  6.  BBSRC is developing a further call for BSEP and has agreed an additional £8 million over three years to cover phase 5 of the programme. It is anticipated that the grants awarded will be announced in the autumn.

The Role of the Institute for Animal Health

  7.  IAH is a major UK centre for research on diseases in farm animals. It also plays an important role in education and training and its research underpins the development of vaccines, diagnostic kits or reagents, genes, gene products and vaccine vectors. The Institute comprises three sites at Compton, Pirbright and the NPU. There are specialist facilities for TSE research at the NPU and Compton.

  8.  In addition to the main TSE research areas, a TSE Resource Centre was established at the Institute in 1998 co-funded by BBSRC and MRC (reference: Phillips volume 2, paragraph 7.65). Its remit is to collect, store, characterise, produce and distribute a range of reagents, from monoclonal antibodies to teaching aids. The primary role of the Centre is to supply a range of specialised research reagents needed for TSE research. By providing an infrastructure to produce sufficient amounts of quality reagents to meet the needs of users, not only has much of the unfunded workload and cost currently placed on individual laboratories been removed, but the reagents are available for prompt distribution.

  The Resource Centre provides reagents to both national and international TSE researchers.


Setting Research Priorities (reference: Phillips volume 1, paragraphs 1289 and 1290)

  9.  Since the inception of BSEP, the BSEP Working Party has advised BBSRC on TSE research priorities. Membership of the Working Party comprises independent experts in the field and invited observers from MAFF, Department of Health (DH), MRC and, more recently, the Food Standards Agency (FSA). When selecting members of the Working Party BBSRC has sought to maintain cross-membership with the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) and the DH/MRC TSE Research Advisory Group. In reaching its recommendations on research priorities the Working Party takes account of reports and conclusions reached by SEAC, work supported by other funders, nationally agreed priorities, guidance from the High Level Committee, and progress being made by the current portfolio of BSEP projects. Against this background, particular attention is paid to identifying gaps in research and areas which could benefit from additional research.

  10.  Current BBSRC priorities are:

    —  to identify and characterise the infectious agents of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and related TSEs;

    —  elucidation of the molecular basis of strain variation in scrapie;

    —  further development of transgenic animal models for the investigation of the nature of the infectious agent, transmission and the species barrier;

    —  to understand the molecular basis of pathogenesis of the TSE agents including those which affect humans; and

    —  to investigate the genetic control of host animal susceptibility to TSEs.

Peer review (reference: Phillips volume 1, paragraph 1289, volume 2, paragraph 7.61)

  11.  In each phase of BSEP there has been competition for the funding available and the programme has been open to applications from all UK academic institutions, recognised academic analogues, all Research Council institutes, Government Research Establishments, agencies and UK not-for-profit organisations. Applications undergo a rigorous assessment procedure involving external peer review by experts in the field both in the UK and abroad. The BSEP Working Party has the collective responsibility for recommending to BBSRC which projects are worthy of support.

Research Community

  12.  Phillips comments (volume 1, paragraph 1132), "an attempt might have been made with advantage to recruit expertise from the wider scientific community". This was one of the original objectives of BSEP which has been maintained in the subsequent phases of the programme. Achieving this objective has not proved to be straightforward and although the number of research groups and individual scientists working on TSEs has increased substantially since 1990 the build-up has taken place over a long period. The underlying factors thought to constrain those who might think of breaking into the field include; the complex nature of the subject, the need for expensive containment facilities and the long incubation period of TSEs.

Research Co-ordination (reference: Phillips Report, volume 1, paragraphs 1131, 1132, 1289; volume 2 paragraph 7.63)

  13.  The Phillips Report draws attention to some areas of research that might have benefited from co-ordination by a research supremo or committee. A number of mechanisms have been put in place or augmented since 1996 to ensure the national publicly-funded TSE programme is well co-ordinated. Details are set out below.

TSE Funders Group and the High Level Committee

  14.  The TSE Research and Development Joint Funders Co-ordination Group was set up in 1996. The present chairman is Sir John Pattison. The membership comprises representatives from the major public sector funding bodies; MAFF, BBSRC, MRC and DH as well as The Wellcome Trust, Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department and Health and Safety Executive. The aims of the Group are (i) to ensure that research programmes in the TSE field address priority areas of national interest and (ii) to form the basis of a coherent strategic approach between funding bodies. BBSRC strongly supports these aims and considers that this group has provided the basis to address the concerns raised by the Phillips Report.

  15.  The first aim has been addressed through enhanced networking between research scientists by means of regular workshops (paragraphs 19 and 20 provide details) and a continuous exchange of information of what each funder is supporting and plans for further funding. On behalf of all the Funders a complete listing of the UK research portfolio on TSE research is available on the MRC web site (—2c.htm).

  16.  In addition, the Funders have agreed to make joint calls for new research proposals in key areas. A joint call on the inactivation of the infectious agent was made in 1999. Another call on diagnostic methods is to be announced early in 2001.

  17.  In order to address the second of its aims the Group has been responsible for developing research strategy documents on the human health aspects of TSEs and the animal health aspects of TSEs. These documents are currently under revision and will be drawn together into a single strategy. This relates to the comment made in the Phillips report, volume 2, paragraph 7.82 "to develop closer collaboration in the investigation and management of human and animal disease".

  18.  As a further safeguard the Funders Group reports to the High Level Committee on research into TSEs which is chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. This Committee's terms of reference are:

    —  to ensure that a research strategy, which fully addresses UK Government's policy needs in relation to human and animal TSEs, is in place and agreed by all funders;

    —  to ensure that mechanisms are in place to implement the agreed research strategy and that progress to implementation is taking place as quickly as possible;

    —  to ensure that all relevant sources of expertise are being called upon and the information is being released to them as freely and quickly as possible;

    —  to identify any barriers to progress and make recommendations for overcoming them; and

    —  to make regular reports to the Prime Minister.

  The Chief Executive of BBSRC is a member of this Group.

Networking in the TSE Research Community

  19.  A condition of an award by BBSRC through BSEP was that grantholders should attend an annual workshop the aim of which was to report the latest results prior to publication. This provided a mechanism for reviewing progress as well as an opportunity for scientists to exchange ideas. The BSEP Working Party was responsible for the workshop programme and representatives from Government departments, SEAC and other funders were invited to attend.

  20.  Following the emergence of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the importance of providing the opportunity for researchers in the TSE as a whole, funded by all the relevant funders, to report and discuss their results was acknowledged. Since 1998, the size and scope of the workshop have been expanded and it is now the intention to hold such workshops on a biennial basis. The next such workshop is planned for 2002. This has increased networking opportunities for the researchers and led to a more collaborative approach to this intractable area of science (reference: Phillips Report volume 2, paragraph 7.63 and volume 11 paragraph 4.638 onwards).


  21.  With respect to the possible consequences of farming practices, Phillips concludes (volume 1, executive summary) that "BSE developed into an epidemic as a consequence of an intensive farming practice—the recycling of animal protein in ruminant feed". In this context the distinction between intensive farming per se and an intensive farming practice should be recognised. The use of meat and bonemeal (MBM) as a feed supplement is not confined to the high-input, high-output model of what has become known as intensive farming. It is common practice among farmers using more extensively managed animal production systems to supplement forage rations with concentrates which, before the ban introduced in July 1988, could have included MBM (Phillips Report, volume 12, paragraph 6,8).

  22.  As Phillips makes clear (volume 1, paragraphs 1142-1147) it is easy to understand why following 50 years of recycling animal protein, the risk of a new virulent disease arising as a result was not anticipated by industry or the regulators. It is important to emphasise that the adaptation of living organisms in response to environmental and other stimuli is an ongoing process. Predicting how and when such adaptation might occur and the way in which it might appear is, at best, a most uncertain science. The emergence of E.coli O157 is a recent example. It is by understanding the biology of known pathogenic organisms that government can best respond to the emergence of new transmissible diseases which might have possible consequences for human and animal health.

30 January 2001

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