France's research labs are trying to find out the truth about the shocking news that a retired lab worker may have contracted a fatal brain disease while working.
The patient was a former employee at a federal lab that researched prions. Prions are dangerous and potentially deadly misfolded proteins. Science Magazine reports that she was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD) last week. This is the most common form of prions-related disease in humans. Science Magazine reported that a moratorium was placed on all prion research at nine French labs and five French institutions until experts can determine if the disease resulted from an accident in the lab.
According to a joint press release by the prion laboratories, an investigation is ongoing. It cannot be determined with any certainty if the worker became sick while on the job. It is possible to conclude that the possibility of contracting CJD from working in a prion lab was not a random event, given that CJD cases are very rare.
Science Magazine was informed by a scientist who is familiar with the situation that the lab worker is still breathing. There is no cure or vaccine for fatal prion diseases. It can remain in the body for up to a decade before manifesting itself and causing symptoms. A postmortem examination of brain tissue can confirm a diagnosis.
It is alarming that this type of accident happened before another French scientist, named milie jaumain, who died in 2019 from CJD. This was ten years after she cut her thumb accidentally while preparing samples for a prion-infected mouse brain.
The French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, which runs the now-stopped research labs, only recently recognized her death as a laboratory accident. Although Jaumains death and infection prompted stricter lab security protocols, and increased caution when handling prions, this news shows that there is still much to do.