AN INQUIRY has been launched into how a crucial experiment into whether BSE has infected sheep fell apart in disarray after an astonishing mix up in which scientists discovered that they have been testing the wrong animal brains.
The discovery, leaked on Wednesday night by embarrassed government officials, calls into question the quality of some of the science on which Britain's anti-BSE strategy is based. Scientists at the government-funded Institute for Animal Health in Edinburgh discovered that instead of testing sheep brains for BSE they had inadvertently been testing cattle brains for the past five years, making the entire pounds 217,000 study null and void.
The results of the experiment were about to be made public and it is understood that civil servants were bracing themselves for an announcement that BSE had been found in sheep.
But three days before the results were due to be made public today - demonstrating that the cattle disease had jumped the "species barrier" into sheep - DNA tests on the material showed that it was composed entirely of cattle brains with no detectable sheep tissue.
"Extraordinary is a fair description of this," said Professor Peter Smith, chairman of the Government's Spongiform Encepthalopathy Advisory Committee. "Everyone who's seen these results has been taken aback. It is amazing."
Professor Chris Bostock, a member of Seac and the director of the Institute for Animal Health, said he was also surprised when he was told on Wednesday that another government laboratory had failed to find any DNA material that could have come from sheep brains in the samples undergoing the tests for BSE.
"I was completely flabbergasted when told yesterday morning of what they had found. I've taken steps to set up our own independent audit into the tissue samples and I'm told that Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] will establish its own audit," Professor Bostock said. …