A new blood test can detect variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease with 100% accuracy, an international research team reported last night.
British experts in Edinburgh, Scotland, worked with US and Italian scientists on the research.
They say their test could be used to screen blood supplies as well as helping diagnose the disease at an early stage.
The researchers say that as many as one in 2,000 of the UK population may be silent carriers of the prion disease - which spread in the country in the 1980s through contaminated meat from animals infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
Since then some 178 people in the UK have died from the disease - and 49 other deaths have been recorded globally.
The test has been trialled in two countries on 32 patients with the disease and nearly 400 controls. It achieved 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, the researchers reported in Science Translational Medicine.
The study involved researchers at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, Chile, in Milan, Italy, at Edinburgh University, at Houston Medical School, Texas, and at the French national INSERM research centre.
The French researchers say they successfully detected prions in two blood donors more than a year before symptoms appeared.
A journal spokesman said: "Silent carriers can potentially transmit the disease through blood transfusion, posing a critical public health problem for blood banks, especially in countries like the UK, where about one in 2,000 people are asymptomatic carriers of vCJD.
"Unlike other blood tests in development, which have demonstrated about 70% sensitivity and fall short of the 90% required by the European Commission Directive, the assay used in both studies diagnosed the disease with 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity."
Researcher Professor Claudio Soto, from the University of Texas, said: "Early diagnosis would allow any potential therapy to be given before substantial brain damage has occurred.
"In the case of the blood supply, availability of a procedure to efficiently detect small quantities of the infectious agent would allow removal of blood units contaminated with prions, so that new cases can be minimised substantially."
Source: Detection of prions in blood from patients with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Science Translational Medicine 21 December 2016
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