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BSE test wins accolade for Swiss company

Prionics' test for detecting BSE is to be used in several European countries. Prionics

When European countries check their cattle for mad cow disease, it is almost certain that they will use a test developed by the Swiss biotechnology company, Prionics.

The Zurich start-up, which in five years has become a world leader for rapid BSE tests, further proved its worth by winning this year’s prestigious Swiss Economic Award.

The recognition is doubly satisfying, says Prionics co-founder, Markus Moser, because in 1997 the fledgling company had a product but no market.

“People really didn’t believe that BSE testing was something useful,” he told swissinfo. “They were very, very sceptical.”

Sticking the course

“Big companies were pulling out of the market and cancelling their BSE projects saying they didn’t believe in them, while the meat industry didn’t want to test because it didn’t want to acknowledge BSE.”

“We believed in it and now we are successful and it’s very nice that the Swiss Economic Forum is recognising this success.”

Moser also thanked investors for their confidence. “It took investors who were willing not only to take the risk but also to wait a couple of years and give us the chance to develop the business.”

Rapid and reliable

The company’s history goes back to 1996 when Zurich university launched a research project financed by the national science fund to develop a rapid and reliable BSE test.

The Zurich-based spin off company was founded in 1997 after a prototype test had been developed.

The Swiss veterinary authorities endorsed the first test in 1998. A year later, it received European Union validation.

In January 2001, the Swiss authorities approved a second-generation BSE test which was designed to allow complete automation.

Prionics now employs 70 people and enjoys a worldwide market share of 60 per cent.

Systematic testing

During the past three years, Prionics’ diagnostic laboratory has tested an average of 50 brain samples a day from slaughtered cows.

The highest BSE risks include animals which die on farms and sick animals slaughtered as emergencies. Spot checks are also conducted on samples from normal slaughtering operations.

The tests yield data on the status of BSE in Switzerland and the effectiveness of the measures, which have been adopted to eradicate the disease.

“In Switzerland and the United Kingdom, numbers are definitely dropping,” said Moser. “But other countries which are only now realising that they have a problem, still face increasing amounts of BSE.”

“What we have learnt in the past year and a half is that BSE is definitely a worldwide problem and this is a largely unexplored area.”

Wider markets

Today, the company produces diagnostic kits, which are used by laboratories all over the world.

Reliability and high sensitivity – the ability to detect ill animals without symptoms of the disease – are identifying features of the tests.

The company has also broadened its scope. “We are looking at immunisation strategies for prion diseases,” said Moser. “We are looking at tests in the human field and innovative techniques to find new cures for other brain diseases.”

Prion diseases are infectious diseases of the brain and occur both in animals and people.

The disease is given a different name according to the species – BSE in cattle, Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease in humans, scrapie in sheep and chronic wasting disease in deer and elk.

Switzerland has played a leading role in developing an active BSE surveillance programme which has now also been adopted by the European Union.

by Vincent Landon

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR