By Linda Hall •
Updated: 19 Oct 2023 • 16:34
BARCELONA UNIVERSITY: The School of Medicine where Laboratory 4141 was located
Photo credit: ub.edu
LAST year a “brilliant and promising” Spanish biochemist died at the tragically young age of 45.
It has now emerged that the unnamed researcher’s symptoms were compatible with those of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the lethal human version of Mad Cow disease.
National daily El Pais was the first to reveal that three months ago Barcelona University (UB) launched an internal enquiry into the origin of thousands of unauthorised samples, some of them capable of infection, that were discovered in the freezer of the laboratory where he worked.
The Bellvitge Institute for Biomedical Research (IDIBELL), to which the scientist belonged, and the Ministry of Science and Innovation’s biomedical consortium CIBER, have also begun their own investigations.
The two latter bodies decided to carry out their own investigation owing to disquiet amongst his fellow researchers who were unaware of the risks involved.
The biochemist began working in Laboratory 4141 at UB’s School of Medicine in January 2018. He headed a research team, which included his wife, that worked on identifying specific substances in human cerebrospinal fluid that could be useful in diagnosing rapid-onset dementia.
He began to feel unwell and took sick leave in November 2020 but once his colleagues realised that his symptoms suggested Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, he swore them to secrecy.
On December 2020, Professor Isidre Ferrer, who heads the Pathology Department at the University of Barcelona and also belongs to IDIBELL, contacted both institutions. He said that samples of cerebrospinal fluid belonging to persons with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other neurogenerative disorders had been found entirely by chance.
Unauthorised samples from humans and animals were discovered in a deep-freeze kept at 80 degrees below zero in a box reserved for the group. There was no official record that the samples had been delivered.
Laboratory 4141, ill-equipped to handle high-risk biohazard samples and without a biosafety air extraction system, was immediately closed and decontaminated although the samples were not sent for analysis until December 2022.
After the results were received in March this year, the university confirmed that the Creutzfeldt-Jakob samples were, as feared, dangerous, but transmissible only through accidental inoculation or contact with contaminated surgical instruments.
In July, legal teams from the university, IDIBELL and CIBER informed members of the research team that the Creutzfeldt-Jakob they had worked with were potentially lethal.
Dr Margarita Blazquez, CIBER’s manager, has pointed out that Creutzfeldt-Jakob can take several years to incubate and if, in fact, it was the cause of his death, the biochemist could have contracted it while researching the disease in Gottingen (Germany) between 2013 and 2017.
Some members of the original team now need counselling but although the authorities admitted the existence of “an intolerable” risk, Isidre Capella stressed that there was no evidence of any work-related accident in Laboratory 4141.
El Pais reported that despite attempts to contact the biochemist’s widow, the newspaper has so far received no reply to their emails.
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Originally from the UK, Linda is based in Valenca and is a reporter for The Euro Weekly News covering local news. Got a news story you want to share?
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