The Medical Research Council's Prion Unit, based at University College London, a leading British research group, is joining forces with drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to develop a cure for the disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).
Researchers based at University College London, and GSK scientists will search for a drug that can halt the infection during its long incubation period.
variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD) is the human form of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and is spread by misfolded prion proteins that infect humans who have eaten contaminated beef products, and happened mainly in the 1980s.
What happens is a "rogue" prion when it comes into contact with a "normal" prion causes that protein molecule to change form too, triggering a chain reaction and the build up of misfolded prions eventually destroys large parts of the brain, leading to disability and death.
Scientists hope to find a compound that can target rogue prions and halt their spread before the damage is done.
The long incubation period of vCJD may span decades depending on the genetic make-up of those infected.
According to the latest figures issued by the Department of Health (DoH) there have been a total of 155 cases of definite or unconfirmed cases of vCJD but it is possible many more may emerge as incubation periods come to an end.
To find a compound that can halt vCJD without harming the brain will involve screening hundreds of thousands of potentially therapeutic molecules from large drug databases and one of the biggest such "libraries", containing more than a million compounds, is owned by GSK.
Making one of these databases available to an academic group, among the most valuable and jealously guarded assets of drug companies, is unprecedented and there is little obvious commercial advantage for GSK, since vCJD - and other forms of CJD not linked to beef - are so rare.
John Collinge, director of the MRC Prion Unit, says the development of a drug to completely block prions now appears realistic after years of very difficult work at the MRC.
He and his colleagues are delighted to have the opportunity to now translate these advances in laboratory research into real benefit for patients affected by these dreadful diseases and the prospect of access to the resources and expertise of GSK is extremely exciting.
The DoH is funding the research through a grant awarded to the Institute of Neurology at UCL, for the development of a candidate drug for potential human trials which is expected to take at least six more years.
Peter Machin, the senior vice-president chemistry and screening sciences at GSK, says they too are delighted to provide their compound collection of high quality, drug-like molecules to accelerate the search for compounds that may prove useful in the treatment of CJD.