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The Times Magazine: 6/5/00

In certain areas deer have succumbed to "deer BSE", and to Iceland, where some sheep have scrapie. Purdey's soil sample results showed that in both countries the areas which had high scrapie and BSE also had relatively high levels of naturally-occurring manganese in the environment. Could this be the missing link: the mineral implicated in spongiform brain diseases? He searched the literature on manganese and found articles dating back decades about maganese miners dying of a brain disease known as manganese madness. It had virtually identical symptoms to spongiform disease. It also had the bizarre symptom of "unmotivated smiling".
Then he tracked down Gajdusek's research from another area high in manganese from its volcanoes, New Guinea. It described a brain disease known as kuru, the laughing death, which occurred in women and children of cannibal tribes who ate the brains of the dead. One symptom is a bizarre grin and contorted limbs - as found in the new variant CJD.
But what is the link with Britain and BSE? "In the Eighties," says Purdey, "cows here were fed poultry manure which was put into their concentrated feed. That manure was high in manganese, fed to hens to boost modern egg production."
Manganese is, he believes, the missing link.

Also in the spring of 1996, the Nobel prizewinner Dr Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, renowned for his ground-breaking research into rare diseases such as kuru, a variant of CJD which occurs in New Guinea tribespeople, was arrested in America for sex offences. According to the National Institute of Health where Gajdusek worked in Bethesda, Maryland, his journals, detailing traditional practices in the tribes he worked with, had been in the public domain for 30 years.

Yet according to The Observer (February 16, 1997), "On 4 April 1996 as Dr Gajdusek was flying back from a conference on BSE in Geneva, FBI agents were raiding both his office and his home in Maryland. They took away files, disks, photographs, film and notebooks. The same evening when he drew into his driveway with a doctor colleague, a dozen FBI agents leapt from cover and arrested the 72-year-old at gunpoint." Gajdusek protested his innocence but went to prison, his lifetime's research discredited.

Meanwhile, in California in May 1996, Tsunao Saitoh PhD, professor of neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, was shot dead with his young daughter. Saitoh was an internationally respected researcher into the reasons for diseases such as Alzheimer's and had been doing ground-breaking research on the deformation of the amyloid brain protein (found in CJD and Alzheimer's).

In 1997, Purdey - with the financial help of well-wishers - commissioned trials at the Department of Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatrists where the causes of diseases such as CJD and Alzheimer's are investigated. The results of these trials, showing that phosmet increased susceptibility to BSE, were later presented to the SEAC. And then in April 1998, on the eve of Purdey's day-long hearing at the BSE Inquiry, the Government announced they would aid reseach into his BSE theory.

It seemed like success at last and Purdey was delighted - but he says, "they have failed to grant funding to any proposals to date, including my own, and so the research still hasn't happened. The upshot of this is that the public has stopped funding my research because they think the Government is now paying for it - and I have been left high and dry. "

Purdey has written umpteen letters to ask why, and finds the escalating indignation of the official replies hilarious. "When I started putting cc HRH Prince of Wales on my letters," he says, "their tone changed entirely. Grovelling officials!" He claims that the Prince of Wales - through contact with Ted Hughes - is a quiet supporter, as well as the Duke of Edinburgh, who has allegedly been asking MAFF since 1991 why it has approved the use of OPs which have been linked to Gulf War syndrome and to BSE.

The MP Tom King is a more public supporter. "Purdey is a very remarkable man;' says King, "an individual farmer who didn't believe the official statements on BSE and who had painstakingly pursued a theory which is a classic piece of scientific investigation and Intelligent observation of his own cattle. My wife is a farmer and I have dipped sheep with OPs: they passed out and we thought they were dead. These compounds were launched without adequate warnings.

"I have tried to ensure that Purdey got a fair hearing, and he has had a number of meetings with officials [because of) the strong backup I gave him. I went and supported him at the Phillips Inquiry, where his conduct under cross-examination was impressive. He is absolutely committed. I'm a strong supporter and admirer.

"At certain critical moments the scientific establishment has tried to freeze him out. When he first started, [there] was a great reluctance to entertain any suggestion that there might be an alternative explanation for BSE. There were so many issues - including accountability, money and public funds."

Before he became Environment Minister, the MP Michael Meacher also called for Purdey's theories to be checked out, as has the Conservative MP and former chairman of the House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee, Sir Richard Body.

"He may not have a doctorate, but he's no fool," states Sir Richard, himself the author of four books on farming, "and he has been fighting a very lonely battle. The Ministry of Agriculture has behaved disgracefully because he challenged their authority. Some say he is obsessional, but when you're fighting a scientific establishment, you have to be. A lesser man than he would have given up years ago. "

Lately, Purdey's research has taken him on a spree of soil sampling to Colorado, where in certain areas deer have succumbed to "deer BSE", and to Iceland, where some sheep have scrapie. Purdey's soil sample results showed that in both countries the areas which had high scrapie and BSE also had relatively high levels of naturally-occurring manganese in the environment. Could this be the missing link: the mineral implicated in spongiform brain diseases? He searched the literature on manganese and found articles dating back decades about maganese miners dying of a brain disease known as manganese madness. It had virtually identical symptoms to spongiform disease. It also had the bizarre symptom of "unmotivated smiling".

Then he tracked down Gajdusek's research from another area high in manganese from its volcanoes, New Guinea. It described a brain disease known as kuru, the laughing death, which occurred in women and children of cannibal tribes who ate the brains of the dead. One symptom is a bizarre grin and contorted limbs - as found in the new variant CJD.

But what is the link with Britain and BSE? "In the Eighties," says Purdey, "cows here were fed poultry manure which was put into their concentrated feed. That manure was high in manganese, fed to hens to boost modern egg production."

Manganese is, he believes, the missing link. "OPs accelerate the absorption of manganese in the brain, as well as converting the mineral into its lethal "3+" form. The combination of OPs and manganese became the dual trigger for BSE - in which manganese 3+ binds to the prion protein so that it becomes misfolded. This generates free radicals which in turn set off a chain reaction - rather like ,cluster bombs 'which destroy the brain."

And on the day we meet, Purdey is buoyant because a new test carried out by the biochemist Dr David Brown at Cambridge University has added credence to his theory. "This test shows that the prion protein is changed into its abnormal spongiform shape by the addition of manganese;'says Purdey.

"There is evidence now that manganese leads to misfolding of the prion protein [in the brain]," confirms Dr Brown, "and perhaps there is some link between this and the prion diseases [scrapie, nv CJD and BSE]. My evidence fits in with Mark Purdey's theory. There must be environmental factors."

In the meantime, life goes on as usual at the farm. There are children to feed, a new baby, the milking. Purdey may soon be acclaimed as - as Ted Hughes put it - a "heroic" saviour. It's more likely, believes Margaret, that if his theory is proved right someone else will claim the credit.

Whatever happens, Purdey will carry on rocking boats. "Far more important than BSE," he says, "is GM foods, which could be a global catastrophe. Our Government scientists arc too often on the payroll of the chemical industry. It makes me very angry. How come one day they are set up as experts on pesticides toxicology and the next day they are experts on GM foods? It's so incestuous!"

As I leave his Exmoor farmhouse,Purdey tells me what happened to his campaigning grandfather. Sadly, his own brother, apparently more concerned about the family name than about the truth, had him committed to an asylum."Tragically," says Purdey, "he died there. But he was right. "

Let history not repeat itself.

  Brigid McConville: The Times Magazine 6/5/00