Swiss researchers may have paved the way for easier diagnosis of vCJD, the human equivalent of BSE, according to a study reported in the scientific journal Nature.

The techniques developed by Claudio Soto, and his colleagues at the SerOno Pharmaceutical Research Institute in Geneva, might effectively speed up the process which detects the fatal, brain wasting disease, and possibly even form the groundwork for a cure.

Diseases such as vCJD and BSE are incredibly difficult to diagnosis until shortly before symptoms appear, at which point the carrier may have actually been infected for some years. The abnormal protein that triggers the disease, called a prion, exists in tiny quantities before it affects the brain, "converting" other prions and creating a chain reaction.

The Swiss scientists have managed to accelerate this conversion process in the laboratory, making prion diseases visible again. Currently, an accurate diagnosis can only be made by examining a sample of brain tissue, but now it may be possible to detect the disease within a blood sample or spinal fluid.

"This is a major scientific breakthrough and has potential applications in improving tests for prion diseases, as well as identifying targets against which future drugs should be aimed," said Silvano Fumero, a senior executive at SerOno.