A Nobel Prize-winning researcher has said that the entire British population should be tested for vCJD, the human form of BSE (mad cow disease).

Professor Stan Prusiner, who won the Nobel Prize in 1997 for research into BSE, has backed calls from fellow scientists and interest groups for mass screening. There have been 588 cases of sporadic CJD in Britain over the last ten years, and fears have risen recently that the incidence could be more widespread than believed. These 588 cases come on top of the 117 cases of the variant CJD that are usually related to BSE.

Professor Prusiner remarked: "A million cattle infected with BSE entered the British food chain […] so almost everyone in the country will have been exposed to the infectious prion proteins. Every Briton should be tested, so that if they are developing the disease it can be spotted before symptoms appear."

He added: "The Government should be testing every cow and sheep entering the food chain."

Prof Prusiner has developed a highly sensitive, automated test for detecting prions that is said to improve significantly the accuracy and speed of detecting the various forms of the infectious agent, reported the Daily Telegraph.

The test, an immunological probe, or immunoassay, uses newly developed, high-affinity antibodies to reveal and measure prions in brain tissue. It is thus able to measure infectious, abnormal prion protein.