Europeans have destroyed 4.5 million cows since 1996, the height of the epidemic in the United Kingdom, because they were believed to be at risk for mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE).1 Necropsies, however, showed that only a few hundred thousand of them actually were infected.2 Had a diagnostic test for mad cow disease existed when this epidemic erupted, these numbers might have been different. But no such test did exist. The only available assay was a bioassay in which host animals are inoculated with material from suspected animals, and some number of months to years later, an answer appears.

Now basic research on prions, the infectious proteinaceous particles that cause mad cow disease and other cases of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSEs), has caught up with the disease. The latest batch of assays validated for use by the European Commission cuts the time down from months...

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