Galveston County Daily News (Internet / Print) 07/07/06 A breakthrough by a local research team could illuminate one of medicine’s darkest secrets by exposing how many people could unknowingly be infected with the human form of mad cow disease. The University of Texas Medical Branch team, headed by neurology professor Claudio Soto, has detected the malformed proteins that cause variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD, during the so-called silent phase of the infection. Previously, Soto’s team was only able to detect these diseased proteins — known as prions — in the blood of lab animals that were in advanced stages of the disease. This incubation phase of the disease in humans can stretch 20 to 40 years, Soto said. That fact raises fears in areas of the world hit hardest by mad cow disease, such as the United Kingdom, that thousands of apparently healthy people who ingested tainted meat — or received blood transfusions or organ donations from others carrying the brain-destroying disease — might be infected.