The number of people likely to die from the human form of mad cow disease (vCJD) may have already peaked, according to new research published in the journal Science.

Professor Robert Will, head of the Edinburgh-based National CJD Surveillance Unit, has argued that since the majority of people to have died from the disease so far have been quite young, older people may be more resistant.

The research involved differentiating between "new" vCJD, believed to be caused by eating BSE-contaminated meat, and "classic" vCJD, which is unconnected with meat consumption. Department of Health figures display 111 confirmed or "probable" cases of vCJD since 1996 and the average age of those who have died is 28. Few victims were aged over 53. Meanwhile, 93% of "classic" vCJD cases are in people over 50.

Until recent research, estimates of the number of deaths to be caused by variant Creutzfeld Jakob disease wildly ranged from a couple of hundred to more than 130,000.