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Fred Brown, 79; Foot-and-Mouth Disease Expert

March 08, 2004|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Fred Brown, considered by many the preeminent authority on foot-and-mouth disease in Britain and the U.S., died Feb. 20 of an apparent heart attack at his home in Surrey, England. He was 79.

Over the past half century, Brown's research transformed the debate over how to contain foot-and-mouth disease, the virus that affects cloven-hoofed livestock such as sheep, cattle and swine.

"He will be remembered as a pioneer behind a new generation of safe vaccines and fast, discriminating diagnostic tests," said Roger Breeze, associate administrator of the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

While not necessarily lethal for animals, foot-and-mouth disease makes them what Brown called "poor doers." Weight gain drops in meat animals and milk output falls in dairy ones, sharply reducing their value to farmers. It is so devastating to the economies of milk- and meat-producing countries that their governments have traditionally resorted to mass slaughter to contain it.

Brown devoted his career to eradicating it by more humane means: using vaccines.

There are strong economic incentives to prefer slaughter. Countries such as the United States -- which stamp out the disease this way, and subsequently remain free of disease -- earn coveted "FMD-free status." This allows them to ban imports from Third World countries, where the disease is endemic.

Brown saw the practice of not immunizing animals as not just immoral but risky. With foot-and-mouth incipient throughout Asia, South America and Africa, he saw it as a matter of time before it wreaked disaster in the United States. Twice in his career, he had seen it devastate Britain.

During the peak of the 2001 British foot-and-mouth epidemic, his appearance filled press galleries and lecture halls, said Hugh Pennington, medical microbiologist at the University of Aberdeen and the scientist who handled the E. coli inquiries for the British government. "People knew what Fred was going to say would be relevant because he was the man with the proven record and who would speak his mind."

Brown was the son of a furniture polisher in Clayton, in Lancashire, northwest England. As a result of his roots, observed Breeze, Brown was "Fred, not Frederick." Brown earned his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Manchester in 1948 and taught for several years before joining the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright, England, in 1955. Only a handful of labs are licensed worldwide for scientists to experiment on foot-and-mouth disease, and Pirbright and Plum Island in New York are the two best known.

At the time Brown joined Pirbright, a host of new tools, including electron microscopes and sensitive chemical tests, were ushering in a new age in virology. Brown was quick to employ the technologies to take the virus apart, molecule by molecule. He had risen to chief scientific officer at Pirbright when the unprecedented 1967 foot-and-mouth epidemic broke out in western England. Half a million animals were slaughtered in a yearlong eradication campaign. A horrified Brown redoubled the pace of his work.

The obstacles he faced were part scientific, part economic. Like the human influenza virus, the disease came in a number of strains, each of which required different vaccines. These were difficult and dangerous to handle.

Traditional vaccines use live virus that are then killed. Sometimes they don't die and vaccines spread disease instead of stopping it. Sometimes, as happens with human flu shots, authorities produce vaccines for the wrong strain.

By taking the virus down to molecular level, Brown laid the groundwork for vaccine manufacturers to copy and safely synthesize enough of a virus to provoke a protective immune response but not enough to make the dose infectious. The new biotech vaccines were easy and fast to make, or alter for a strain change.

By 1980, Brown had reached the top of his profession. He was editor in chief of the Journal of General Virology, author of more than 30 papers in the journal Nature and a newly elected fellow of the Royal Society, or FRS.

"When he got his FRS, this was something that was totally justified on the science, it wasn't because he's been involved in some magic network," Pennington said. "When a paper by him came out, one went to read it with great interest because there was always something really good about that paper. A 'Why haven't I thought about it?' kind of thing."

However, time for eradicating foot-and-mouth was running out for Brown. The mandatory retirement age for British civil servants is 60. Foot-and-mouth research can be done only in government high-security labs. As he entered official retirement age, he was expected to become a committee man, Pennington said. In 1990, Brown joined the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, created by the British government to give expert advice on a newly emergent agricultural plague, "mad cow" disease.

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