A Swiss start-up company has emerged as the world leader in the testing of cattle for mad cow disease, or BSE. The company expects to triple its turnover next year, following the deepening crisis caused by the disease in Europe.
In 1996, a group of scientists at Zurich University decided to undertake research into effective ways to test cows for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE.
The test they developed, Prionics-Check, is now used across Europe, and has become the standard means of detecting BSE in cattle.
Indeed, a European Commission study into various tests found that Prionics-Check was 100 per cent reliable in distinguishing between normal cattle and cattle with clinical BSE.
One of the researchers, Markus Moser, told swissinfo that the impetus for developing Prionics-Check came about because no reliable tests existed.
"It was really a side project," said Moser. "We knew that a lot of money had already been invested in England in the development of BSE tests but nobody had come up with a reliable procedure."
To pay for their research, the team set up a private company, Prionics, in early 1997 funded by venture capital.
By the end of that year, Prionics-Check had been evaluated and approved by the Swiss government. In 1999, it became part of a national BSE-surveillance programme.
Prionics has since captured more than 95 per cent of the market for BSE-surveillance testing. Its business is expanding fast on the back of continuing revelations of BSE cases and the rising death toll from the human form of the disease, new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (nvCJD).
Moser is tight-lipped about the company's turnover, but it's estimated to be at least SFr3 million (1.72 million). Moser expects this to double or treble over the next year.
"The test itself sells for SFr24," he said. "Added to that are additional materials, which cost SFr30, and the personnel cost of conducting the test in the laboratory which comes to around SFr80 in Switzerland."
Kits for associated laboratories and other testers come at a cost of SFr17.
At present, Prionics is owned by 14 investors, and Moser is planning a third private placement next year or an initial public offering.
"We have many projects in the pipeline. One ambitious project is the development of a blood test for CJD. Other projects include therapy and immunisation. We are also moving into other areas of brain diseases, and not just prion diseases."
Prionics is also cultivating a business-to-business strategy. Last month, Switzerland's two largest supermarket chains, Migros and Coop, commissioned the company to test the safety of beef on their shelves.
Moser estimates that these tests will increase the cost of beef products by around 30 centimes.
The next step for Prionics is to expand its business on other continents. Moser said the demand for testing for prion diseases is growing fast, given the prevalence of a similar disease in sheep, known as "scrapie".
"Countries like the United States have problems with scrapie and other prion diseases. They are also doing BSE surveillance to ensure that they are BSE-free.
"The fact that you do not have BSE does not mean that you have to conduct tests, especially if you have other diseases in the country," Moser said.
A key concern is the developing world. "A lot of meat and bone meal has been exported to the developing world," said Moser.
"I do not know how good their surveillance programmes will be in the future. We have to ensure that these countries do not have large stocks of animal-based feed that is now used as this would trigger a new epidemic."
by Samantha Tonkin