A prestigious Spanish researcher of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease died last year after experiencing symptoms consistent with this deadly ailment, as EL PAÍS has learned from multiple sources at the three institutions involved. Three months ago, the University of Barcelona opened an internal investigation to ascertain the origin of thousands of unauthorized samples, some of them infectious, discovered in a freezer in its laboratory 4141, where the deceased biochemist worked. He was a member of the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) and the CIBER public consortium. These two institutions have joined the internal investigation, after noting concern among colleagues at the facility, who did not know the level of risk to which they were exposed without their knowledge. This neurodegenerative disease incubates silently for years, but when symptoms appear — rapid dementia and muscle stiffness — it is fatal. Life expectancy after diagnosis is barely six months. Its best-known animal equivalent is mad cow disease.
The biochemist joined the 4141 lab at the University of Barcelona in January 2018 as a principal investigator with a group of his own; his wife joined shortly after. Together, they identified characteristic substances in human cerebrospinal fluid, useful for the diagnosis of rapid dementia. In November 2020, the now deceased scientist began to feel unwell and asked to leave. After his colleagues found out that his symptoms were consistent with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, he demanded absolute privacy and decided to hide his diagnosis, according to the sources consulted for this article. He died at the age of 45.
On December 18, 2020, the head of the 4141 laboratory, Isidre Ferrer, a professor of Pathology at the University of Barcelona and a member of IDIBELL, informed the directors of both institutions that suspicious samples of cerebrospinal fluid from people with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other neurodegenerative types of dementia had been discovered by chance in a freezer at 80 degrees below zero, according to internal documentation to which EL PAÍS had access. The thousands of unauthorized samples from patients and animals were in a drawer reserved for the sick researcher’s group and lacked records indicating their presence. The University of Barcelona then ordered the immediate closure and decontamination of laboratory 4141, located in the School of Medicine at L’Hospitalet de Llobregat.
Doctor Gabriel Capellá, the director of IDIBELL, explains that they have identified “a maximum of eight people” who worked in the laboratory at that time, in addition to the deceased scientist and Isidre Ferrer. Some of these coworkers have required months of psychological care. The university’s safety office and IDIBELL’s prevention service determined that there was “an unacceptable risk,” although Capellá emphasizes that “there is no record of any occupational accident” in which a researcher could have been infected with contaminated material. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other human transmissible spongiform encephalopathies are caused by abnormal proteins called prions, which accumulate in the brain and cause a microscopic sponge-like appearance. There are only one or two cases per million inhabitants, the vast majority of which are of unknown cause, but cases of the disease have also been reported after contact with surgical instruments contaminated by these prions.
The three institutions involved took more than two years to send the suspect samples for analysis to a specialized center, the CIC bioGUNE, in Derio, Spain. A spokeswoman for the University of Barcelona says that they sent them in December 2022 and the three organizations received the results in March 2023. Four months later, in July, the legal departments at the three institutions finally informed the 4141 laboratory workers that the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease samples were potentially infectious, as feared. “You can debate whether we have been quick [in our response] or not, but we have been transparent. We are [part of] three institutions that had to agree, and we have acted as guarantors,” says Capellá. A similar situation also occurred in France; following the death of a researcher from Creutzfeldt-Jakob in 2019 and the discovery of another suspected case, all public laboratories investigating prion diseases decided to temporarily close in July 2021 to review their protocols.
Laboratory 4141 was not equipped to handle high biohazard samples. It did not even have a biosafety hood. At the end of 2018, the CIBER public consortium signed an agreement so that the group could work with these dangerous samples at the high-security laboratory of the Animal Health Research Center (CReSA) in Bellaterra, Spain, near Barcelona. According to the sources we consulted, there was no reason to have the contaminated material in laboratory 4141, beyond saving time during experiments, since the CReSA bunker is 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) away and required waiting one’s turn to use. Isidre Ferrer, the head of the facility at the time, who has since retired, prefers not to comment on the case until the internal investigation is completed, but he emphasizes that he was unaware of the existence of these dangerous samples.
The IDIBELL director recalls that the deceased scientist was “a promising and brilliant researcher.” From 2013 to 2017, he worked at the University Medical Center of Göttingen (Germany) under neurologist Inga Zerr, a leading international expert in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Physician Margarita Blázquez, who manages the CIBER public consortium, notes that the disease’s incubation period can last several years, so, if the deceased researcher really had it, he also could have become infected with it in Germany or at another of his previous laboratories. This newspaper has tried to contact the scientist’s widow via email but has not received a response. She asked to be discharged shortly after her husband did. The three institutions are now investigating whether the couple handled the dangerous samples without authorization in lab 4141. A third person affiliated with CIBER, a member of the now-deceased biochemist’s research group, worked with potentially infectious Creutzfeldt-Jakob samples without being informed that they were infectious.
The security office of the University of Barcelona believes that the samples would only have been a problem in the case of accidental inoculation or ingestion while handling them. But internal documents confirm the alarm the situation has caused on campus. “The laboratory technicians and investigators express their enormous concern about the fact that, so far, it has not been possible to determine the origin of the doctor’s illness. They are left to worry about whether they may suffer the same fate in a few years’ time as a result of uncontrolled contamination that may have been created in the laboratory,” according to the minutes of a December 22, 2020, meeting between workers and Carles Solsona, the director of the Department of Pathology at the University of Barcelona. “This fear causes them to suffer a state of permanent anguish, causing insomnia and irritability.”
The IDIBELL director sent a message to the center’s entire staff on the 11th, five days after EL PAÍS informed him that it was investigating the case. Gabriel Capellá then told his workers of “a very serious incident that became known on campus for the first time at the end of 2020.″ With “deep dismay,” Capellá announced the researcher’s death “due to a possible prion condition,” with “a possible iatrogenic [a disease acquired by contact with contaminated materials during a medical procedure].” The director also reported finding “potentially dangerous samples” in a freezer. “Our priority is to ensure that this situation is handled rigorously and transparently to limit the damage to the reputation of our institutions,” he said.
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