An Interview with Colm Kelleher
By Alexander M. Dake


Colm A. Kelleher, Ph.D., a biochemist with a 15-year career in cell and molecular biology research, has worked in leading institutes and laboratories around the world, such the Ontario Cancer Institute, the Terry Fox Cancer Research Laboratory, and the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine. Paraview Pocket Books just released his book Brain Trust, The Hidden Connections between Mad Cow and Misdianosed Alzheimer’s Disease, while renewed indications of mad cow disease in the US surfaced and were eventually tested negatively. This news was a major relief for the $75 billion U.S. beef industry, but not the end of the story, as Kelleher explains in his book.

Kelleher warns that unless authorities act against mad cow disease “by the end of the first decade of the 21st Century we may be faced with a public health emergency of unimaginable proportions.” Against this backdrop, Alexander Dake spoke with Kelleher over lunch at Josie’s, a delightful restaurant in New York that offers “conscious cuisine” to its customers.

Over a lunch of miso soup (vegetarian preparation), grilled vegetable-tofu chopped salad (Dr. Kelleher), char-grilled organic cheeseburger (Dake), and sparkling water, we discussed the safety of the U.S. food supply.

Origins of mad cow disease
AD: You describe in your book various diseases as prions diseases, of which mad cow is the most well known. What are prions exactly?

CK: Prions are unique, infectious proteins, which, when they change shape in cells, can kill these cells, specifically those in the nervous system and in the brain, and they are fatal. A second characteristic is that they are very hardy: they can remain in the soil for years. In addition, the ability to kill these prions is very limited. Standard sterilization procedures do not harm the prions. This makes doctors very wary to do autopsies on people who die from these diseases. In animals these prions diseases take the form of scrapie for sheep; TME (transmissible mink encephalopathy) for mink; CWD (chronic wasting disease) for deer and elk; and mad cow disease or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) for cows. Among humans, prions diseases are CJD (Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease) and Kuru.

AD: You seem to blame Kuru as the main cause of mad cow disease in the US. How did this all start?

CK: Let me first say that Kuru is not the only cause of mad cow disease. We know for example that in 1947 scrapie was imported in the US from Britain. Going back to Kuru, that was a disease that killed thousands of the Fore tribe in New Guinea in the 1950s. This disease was spread by this tribe’s cannibalistic practice of eating dead people, especially their brains. Two fascinating individuals, Vincent Zigas, an Australian doctor, and Carleton Gajdusek, an American
scientist, tried to treat the many women and children that were suffering from this brain disease. Gajdusek started researching the brains of those people who had died from Kuru, and sent samples of these brains to the National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Maryland. The purpose of their tests was to determine whether Kuru was infectious. These tests took place in the 1960s in a wildlife refuge, Patuxent, where they injected the Kuru brain samples in primates and many other species. At the same time they discovered that the human brain disease CJD shared many symptoms with Kuru, so they also decided to inject CJD tissue into the test animals. My theory is that infected test animals escaped from the testing lab into the Patuxent wildlife reserve, and they in turn infected other animals, and the wider environment. The spread of these prions diseases became evident in the following years: in mink farms in Wisconsin, in deer populations in Colorado, in squirrels in Kentucky, and in cattle in Washington.

AD: So you do describe a direct link between mad cow disease and Kuru?

CK: I think that as a potential cause of mad cow in the US, the possible spread from Patuxent is very important. However, I would describe the situation in Patuxent more like throwing gasoline on fire. I want to emphasize that there is no smoking gun, no specific evidence that multiple animals escaped and caused the transmission of Kuru. But in addition to what I just mentioned there have been in recent years unexplained outbreaks of CJD in different places in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Another unexplained phenomenon is the emergence of CWD, mad deer disease, which first appeared in a wildlife research facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, and then in a sister facility in Wyoming. We don’t know whether there is a link between Patuxent and these wildlife facilities; what we do know is that that area has become the epicenter from which the disease has spread into a dozen states.

Mad cow and mad deer disease
AD: How does CWD, the mad deer disease, present a danger to our food supply?

CK: Well, first of all, CWD affects an increasingly popular food, namely venison. But on a broader scale, there is a clear probability that prions diseases can jump from deer to cattle, and then to humans. We have seen in the 1990s in the United Kingdom how prions-loaded beef caused death among humans who had consumed it. Another example was in 1985 in Wisconsin where 4,000 mink died from prions diseases, caused by cattle-based feed. This shows that cattle in the US had already been infected with some form of mad cow disease at least from 1985. I believe there is a spreading of prions diseases starting in wildlife, occasionally moving into beef and maybe dairy and ending up in our food chain. My basic point is that we have no idea about the numbers of CJD that result from eating contaminated wildlife or beef, and that needs to be addressed urgently and not swept away under the carpet.

AD: Going back to the situation in the UK in the 90s: among the leading causes of mad cow was feeding cows with feed containing cattle or road kill. Is the current situation in the US comparable?

CK: This practice supposedly was discontinued in 1997. However, when last year a mad cow case was discovered in Washington the media discovered that ground-up cattle is still being fed to chicken and to pigs. Their waste is then being recycled as cattle feed. We know that chickens can be carriers of prions disease. We also know that cow blood is being spread on cattle feed. This cow blood could come from infected animals. So there are many loopholes in the firewalls that the USDA is so fond of talking about.

CJD & Alzheimer’s disease
AD: How many people have died so far from CJD worldwide?

CK: Let me first explain the two strains of CJD: eating contaminated beef can cause the variant form of CJD (vCJD). Approximately 150 people have died from vCJD, most of them in the UK and only one in Florida last year. The official line is that vCJD is not a problem. Then there is spontaneous CJD (sCJD), which “officially” arises spontaneously and is extremely rare. One of my main points is that the statistics of sCJD are dramatically underrepresented, as there are actually thousands of cases of CJD that are misdiagnosed Alzheimer's disease in the US. In two separate studies, Yale University and the University of Pittsburgh have shown that between 5-13 percent of the 4-5 million Alzheimer's disease patients in the US are actually sCJD. On top of all of this, CJD is not even a reportable disease in 26 states in this country, so no one knows whether it is widely spread or not. It would be dangerous and irresponsible to assume it’s not.

AD: Are you saying that Alzheimer’s and CJD are the same disease?

CK: No. They do have overlapping symptoms, but what I am saying is that there is a hidden number of CJD cases misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s. Let’s face it: Alzheimer’s disease has shown a dramatic increase in the US of 9,000 percent over the last 20 years. In 1979, 653 people died of Alzheimers and in 2002 that number was 51,000. In Europe, too, the number of Alzheimer cases has exploded. The CDC released a report in 1996 explaining that these growing numbers were based on increased efficiency of diagnosis. In the meantime, there is a mindset developing that old people are expected to die of some kind of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Well, half a century ago Alzheimer’s was very rare. I submit that we don’t have enough information to make these claims: most Alzheimer’s victims are not autopsied. There are also too many unanswered questions about prions diseases. So without further research and testing, medical authorities should not issue blanket statements such as “all the meat we eat is 100 percent safe.”

Health risks of eating meat
AD: What do you think are the chances of eating infected beef and getting CJD?

CK: It’s hard to quantify the risks, but it’s clear that there is a risk. We know that prions diseases do exist in the US. We know from the European experience that people die from eating prions-laced beef. We know that there are a number of strange cases of young people, who are avid hunters, and enjoy eating venison who have died in this country. Again, we don’t know all the answers yet, but these cases may be the canary in the coalmine.

AD: How about the risks among the different kinds of meat?

CK: I would assign a higher risk to venison and beef, followed by chicken and pork. Many of these animals are killed before they could develop any symptoms, and that’s why I advocate that testing needs to be increased dramatically. Before last year’s first mad cow case in the US, the USDA tested only 20,000 downer cows per year out of 35 million cattle slaughtered each year in the US. That number increased since to 200,000 animals being tested. This is less than 1 percent, which is ludicrously low. In Japan, for example, they test every cow for mad cow disease before it goes to market. In Europe, they test about a third of cows before they go to market.

AD: What about your own eating habits: have they changed since doing your research?

CK: I am not a vegetarian. I still eat meat occasionally, although not in restaurants. I usually buy organic meat, but I ask questions such as where the meat is from and whether it is grain fed or grass fed. I do want to make sure that I know what I eat.

AD: What about the risks of organic meat?

CK: Well, I think the risks are substantially less than with regular meat. I believe in limiting the risks of eating infected food, but eliminating the risks completely would probably require an absolute change in lifestyle.

AD: What is your view on the claims from official authorities and respected institutions such as the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the USDA, and the CDC that the risk of eating beef is close to zero? They claim that the American food supply is the safest in the history of mankind.

CK: There is an understandable reluctance on the part of the government institutions and the meat lobby groups to admit any risk. They want to protect the beef industry. Any real or perceived risk of our beef could be a major blow to this multi-billion dollar industry. You saw exactly the same thing happening in the United Kingdom: their ministry of agriculture denied any risk till it was openly evident. It’s also important to point out that for example the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis is not as unbiased as it seems: many of its studies are paid for by government departments.

AD: We just have seen a potential second mad cow case in the US, which after multiple testing has been determined to be negative. What is your view on this case?

CK: A number of publications have already raised questions about which parts of the brain were tested, because a brain can have different parts which can simultaneously be infected or not. Also, questions have been raised about how trustworthy this testing is. In the meantime, we are still waiting for results of a Texan woman who may have died from CJD. If sooner or later even a single case of vCJD occurs in the US that is not from a British person, then this whole house of cards begins to look shaky.

The immediate future
AD: Considering that the current wait-and-see attitude is supported by influential institutions, what do you want to be done right now?

CK: First thing is that a major increase of testing needs to be implemented immediately, and the American public needs to be warned that there may be a danger with beef so that they can make informed decisions about their diet. Secondly, there needs to be an increased national awareness of CWD. Not only are there signs of a mad cow epidemic in the US, there is a second, mad deer, epidemic that is spreading rapidly through the country. Many individual CDC and Department of Natural Resources officials have expressed their concern to me. One CDC official suggested that what should be urgently done is research and question the health status of the Colorado hunters who have been hunting elk over the last 20 years. This would offer us critical knowledge about the spread of CWD.

AD: What do you suggest consumers at home and in restaurants can do?

CK: I think we all should put a lot more pressure on our politicians and on the USDA. Whether it takes political activism or media action, we need to get more testing done and make clear that the blanket statements that everything is ok are no longer acceptable.

Book by this author:
Brain Trust, The Hidden Connections between Mad Cow and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease

Other recommended books:
Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture
by Jeremy Rifkin

Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser

Leading related websites (too many to list, but start with these):
Annual incidence rate of BSE in the UK
CDC-BSE info
FDA –BSE site
Center for Global Food Issues
Humane Society of the US
Organic Consumers Association
USDA Econ. Research Service

Recent news releases:
Meating of the Minds Las Vegas Mercury
Texas woman's death probed for mad cow tie in USA Today
U.S. Reports Possible Case Of Mad Cow in New York Times
Suspect Animal Tests Negative for Mad Cow by Reuters
USDA vets question agency's mad cow lab by UPI
Mad Cow: Delay and Denial in St. Louis-Post-Dispatch

BSE: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy: AKA Mad Cow Disease. Killed >100,000 cattle in the UK and Europe in the 1990s.

CWD: Chronic Wasting Disease: Mad deer disease. Prion disease in deer and elk. Now epidemic in wild deer and elk as well as farmed deer and elk in parts of US and Canada.

Kuru: Discovered in New Guinea in 1955. Kuru is actually a CJD. Kuru killed thousands of people in New Guinea.

Prion: A novel infectious protein that kills when it changes shape within the cell and provokes suicide program. Over time can kill billions of brain cells. Creates a chain reaction by changing shape of normal cellular prion proteins and causing them too to kill cells. Is highly infectious and can cross species, although not all the time.

Scrapie: prion disease in sheep.

Sporadic CJD: human fatal TSE that officially arises "spontaneously", but scientific evidence strongly implies some sCJD caused by eating infectious meat

TME: Transmissible Mink Encephalopathy: Fatal disease of mink. Thought to be caused by eating the remains of BSE-infected animals.

TSE: Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, a general term that covers all prion diseases, both human and animal. These are fatal neurological diseases.

Variant CJD: fatal human CJD, first found in UK in 1992/1993, definitely caused by eating contaminated meat (mostly mad cow meat).

© 2004 Alexander M. Dake


Back one page          



Transforming the World One Book at a Time