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World's best BSE test developed by Kerry scientists

Michael O'Connor from Dingle and Riona Sayers of Derryquay, Tralee, have designed the world's most efficient test for B

By Nick Miller

Michael O'Connor from Dingle and Riona Sayers of Derryquay, Tralee, have designed the world's most efficient test for BSE, which will now be used in Ireland and many parts of Europe.

Both come from a farming background, and are delighted to have been able to help farmers and the agriculture industry.

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"Both Michael and myself are from farming backgrounds. It's so nice to be involved in a scientific discovery which would benefit the Irish beef industry," Ms Sayers said.

Michael O'Connor is a partner in Enfer Scientific, the company which developed the Eliza BSE test, while Riona Sayers is the company's project leader. Mr O'Connor admitted it was a strange co-incidence that both of them hail from West Kerry.

"Here I am, a vet from Dingle, and there are 22,000 vets in the whole of the EU. Why did it happen to me and Riona, and why were we so lucky?" he wondered.

Enfer Scientific has been pioneering testing methods since its foundation in the early 1990s. They developed a revolutionary test for Angel Dust and steroids in cattle which was validated by the European Commission and is now widely used.

When the race began to develop a test for BSE, Enfer Scientific bought a patent from a UK company which had failed to find an accurate approach. However, their own efforts met with equal difficulty to begin with.

"We tried and failed again and again and again," Mr O'Connor said.

Since the Angel Dust and steroid cattle tests were proving so successful, Enfer Scientific was able to use the proceeds to develop its own test for the root cause of BSE, the prion.

"We did something completely novel and looked at it as nobody had before. We had to find its weakness, and we developed what was a new phenomenon.

"When we understood it, the prion was the most beautiful molecule we could imagine," Mr O'Connor said.

The test worked, and was able to quickly detect minute quantities of the prion in cattle.

Although Enfer Scientific entered into partnership with SuperValu, the European Commission did not approve of the arrangement and ordered it to stop.

However, the recent BSE scares in Europe forced the EU to reconsider, and it launched a competition between testing companies in which Enfer Scientific came out on top.

The company is now able to trade commercially in Europe, and is selling kits and training operators in France and Germany.

Michael O'Connor and Riona Sayers also have the privilege of knowing that probably every beef animal in Ireland will undergo the test.