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Concept: Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies


The symptoms of prion infection can take years or decades to manifest following the initial exposure. Molecular markers of prion disease include accumulation of the misfolded prion protein (PrPSc), which is derived from its cellular precursor (PrPC), as well as downregulation of the PrP-like Shadoo (Sho) glycoprotein. Given the overlapping cellular environments for PrPC and Sho, we inferred that PrPC levels might also be altered as part of a host response during prion infection. Using rodent models, we found that, in addition to changes in PrPC glycosylation and proteolytic processing, net reductions in PrPC occur in a wide range of prion diseases, including sheep scrapie, human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and cervid chronic wasting disease. The reduction in PrPC results in decreased prion replication, as measured by the protein misfolding cyclic amplification technique for generating PrPSc in vitro. While PrPC downregulation is not discernible in animals with unusually short incubation periods and high PrPC expression, slowly evolving prion infections exhibit downregulation of the PrPC substrate required for new PrPSc synthesis and as a receptor for pathogenic signaling. Our data reveal PrPC downregulation as a previously unappreciated element of disease pathogenesis that defines the extensive, presymptomatic period for many prion strains.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Prion, Chronic wasting disease, Scrapie, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Prions, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies


We report the presence of infectivity in erythrocytes, leukocytes, and plasma of 1 person with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and in the plasma of 2 in 4 persons whose tests were positive for sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The measured infectivity levels were comparable to those reported in various animals with transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

Concepts: Blood, Prion, Neurodegenerative disorders, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Encephalopathy, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies


The structure of the infectious prion protein (PrPSc), which is responsible for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has escaped all attempts at elucidation due to its insolubility and propensity to aggregate. PrPSc replicates by converting the non-infectious, cellular prion protein (PrPC) into the misfolded, infectious conformer through an unknown mechanism. PrPSc and its N-terminally truncated variant, PrP 27-30, aggregate into amorphous aggregates, 2D crystals, and amyloid fibrils. The structure of these infectious conformers is essential to understanding prion replication and the development of structure-based therapeutic interventions. Here we used the repetitive organization inherent to GPI-anchorless PrP 27-30 amyloid fibrils to analyze their structure via electron cryomicroscopy. Fourier-transform analyses of averaged fibril segments indicate a repeating unit of 19.1 Å. 3D reconstructions of these fibrils revealed two distinct protofilaments, and, together with a molecular volume of 18,990 Å3, predicted the height of each PrP 27-30 molecule as ~17.7 Å. Together, the data indicate a four-rung β-solenoid structure as a key feature for the architecture of infectious mammalian prions. Furthermore, they allow to formulate a molecular mechanism for the replication of prions. Knowledge of the prion structure will provide important insights into the self-propagation mechanisms of protein misfolding.

Concepts: Protein folding, Prion, Amyloid, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Prions, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies


Prion science has been on a rollercoaster for two decades. In the mid 1990s, the specter of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE) provoked an unprecedented public scare that was first precipitated by the realization that this animal prion disease could be transmitted to humans and then rekindled by the evidence that BSE-infected humans could pass on the infection through blood transfusions. Along with the gradual disappearance of BSE, the interest in prions has waned with the general public, funding agencies and prospective PhD students. In the past few years, however, a bewildering variety of diseases have been found to share features with prion infections, including cell-to-cell transmission. Here we review these developments and summarize those open questions that we currently deem most interesting in prion biology: how do prions damage their hosts, and how do hosts attempt to neutralize invading prions?

Concepts: Infectious disease, Prion, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Prions, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies


Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a member of the prion diseases, is a fatal neurodegenerative disorder suspected to be caused by a malfunction of prion protein (PrP). Although BSE prions have been reported to be transmitted to a wide range of animal species, dogs and hamsters are known to be BSE-resistant animals. Analysis of canine and hamster PrP could elucidate the molecular mechanisms supporting the species barriers to BSE prion transmission. The structural stability of 6 mammalian PrPs, including human, cattle, mouse, hamster, dog and cat, was analyzed. We then evaluated intramolecular interactions in PrP by fragment molecular orbital (FMO) calculations. Despite similar backbone structures, the PrP side-chain orientations differed among the animal species examined. The pair interaction energies between secondary structural elements in the PrPs varied considerably, indicating that the local structural stabilities of PrP varied among the different animal species. Principal component analysis (PCA) demonstrated that different local structural stability exists in bovine PrP compared with the PrP of other animal species examined. The results of the present study suggest that differences in local structural stabilities between canine and bovine PrP link diversity in susceptibility to BSE prion infection.

Concepts: Protein folding, Prion, Amyloid, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Prions, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, Fatal familial insomnia


Domestic and non-domestic cats have been shown to be susceptible to feline spongiform encephalopathy (FSE), almost certainly caused by consumption of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)-contaminated meat. Because domestic and free-ranging non-domestic felids scavenge cervid carcasses, including those in areas affected by chronic wasting disease (CWD), we evaluated the susceptibility of the domestic cat (Felis catus) to CWD infection experimentally. Cohorts of n=5 cats each were inoculated intracerebrally (IC) or orally (PO) with CWD-infected deer brain. At 40 and 42 months post inoculation, two IC-inoculated cats developed signs consistent with prion disease including a stilted gait, weight loss, anorexia, polydipsia, patterned motor behaviors, head and tail tremors and ataxia, and progressed to terminal disease within 5 months. Brains from these two cats were pooled and inoculated into cohorts of cats by IC, PO, and IP/SQ (intraperitoneal/subcutaneous) routes. Upon sub-passage, feline CWD was transmitted to all IC-inoculated cats with a decreased incubation period of 23-27 months. Feline-adapted CWD (Fel(CWD)) was demonstrated in the brains of all the affected cats by western blot and immunohistochemical analysis. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed abnormalities in clinically ill cats, which included multifocal T2 FLAIR signal hyperintensities, ventricular size increases, prominent sulci and white matter tract cavitation. Currently, 3 of 4 IP/SQ and 2 of 4 PO secondary passage inoculated cats have developed abnormal behavior patterns consistent with the early stage of feline CWD. These results demonstrate that CWD can be transmitted and adapted to the domestic cat, thus raising the issue of potential cervid-to-feline transmission in nature.

Concepts: Prion, Cat, Chronic wasting disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Felidae, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, Felis


Five cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) infections were attributed to infusion of contaminated blood components, turning to real the interhuman transmissibility of this prion disease from asymptomatic carriers. Preventive policies rely on exclusion from blood donation and benefit of leukoreduction initially implemented against leukotropic viruses. In the absence of available antemortem diagnostic tests, the updated prevalence of silent vCJD infections (1/2000 in the United Kingdom) urges the necessity to enforce blood safety with more efficient active measures able to remove the remaining infectivity.

Concepts: Blood, Red blood cell, Prion, Blood transfusion, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, Going Bovine


In the last two decades, knowledge of the neurobiology of prion diseases or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) has significantly advanced, but a successful therapy to stop or delay the progression of these disorders remains one of the most challenging goals of biomedical research. Several obstacles to this achievement are in common with other neurodegenerative disorders: difficulties to move from experimental level to clinical stage; appropriate timing of intervention; correct set up of clinical trial. Also in terms of molecular bases of disease, TSE and the other neurodegenerative disorders associated with protein misfolding such as Alzheimer, Parkinson and Huntington diseases, share a central pathogenic role of soluble small aggregates, named oligomers, considered the culprit of neuronal dysfunction: accordingly, these disorders could by termed oligomeropathies. However, the rapid progression of TSE, together with their clinical and molecular heterogeneity, make the therapeutic approach particularly problematic. The main target of the anti-prion strategy has been the pathological form of the cellular prion protein (PrPC) termed PrPSc, invariably associated with the diseases. Several compounds have been found to affect PrPSc formation or enhance its clearance in in vitro models, and prolong survival in experimental animals. However, few of them such as quinacrine and pentosan polysulfate have reached the clinical evaluation; more recently, we have conducted a clinical trial with doxycycline in patients with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease without satisfactory results. In experimental conditions, active and passive immunization with antibodies against PrP and mucosal vaccination have shown to protect from peripheral infection. Other studies have proposed new potentially effective molecules targeting PrP oligomers. Furthermore, the possibility to interfere with PrPC to PrPSc conversion by an active control of PrPC is another interesting approach emerging from experimental studies. However, in common with the other oligomeropathies, early diagnosis allowing to treat at risk population in a preclinical stage represent the more realistic perspective for efficient TSE therapy.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Prion, Neurodegenerative disorders, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, Fatal familial insomnia


A 9-year-old cynomolgus monkey (Macaca fascicularis) infected orally with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was presented for necropsy following euthanasia 4 years post infection (p.i.). This macaque R984 was exposed to a BSE dose that causes a simian form of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) within 5 years p.i. in other macaques. All orally BSE-infected macaques developed a significant weight gain within the first 2 years p.i. compared with non-BSE-infected age- and sex-matched control animals, suggesting increased risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D). In contrast, macaque R984 developed rapid weight loss, hyperglycemia, and glucosuria and had to be euthanatized 4 years p.i. before clinical signs of vCJD. Pancreas histopathological evaluation revealed severe islet degeneration but, remarkably, no islet amyloid deposits were present. Immunostaining of pancreas sections for insulin and glucagon confirmed the loss of endocrine cells. In addition, prions were present in the adenohypophysis but not in other areas of the brain, indicating centripetal prion spread from the gut during the preclinical phase of BSE infection. Plasma glucose and insulin concentrations of macaque R984 became abnormal with age and resembled T2D. This unusual case of spontaneous T2D in the absence of islet amyloid deposits could have been due to early prion spread from the periphery to the endocrine system or could have occurred spontaneously.

Concepts: Insulin, Diabetes mellitus, Pancreas, Prion, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies


Chronic wasting disease (CWD) affects cervids and is the only known prion disease readily transmitted among free-ranging wild animal populations in nature. The increasing spread and prevalence of CWD among cervid populations threaten the survival of deer and elk herds in North America, and potentially beyond. This review focuses on prion ecology, specifically that of CWD, and the current understanding of the role that the environment may play in disease propagation. We recount the discovery of CWD, discuss the role of the environment in indirect CWD transmission, and consider potentially relevant environmental reservoirs and vectors. We conclude by discussing how understanding the environmental persistence of CWD lends insight into transmission dynamics and potential management and mitigation strategies.

Concepts: Deer, Natural environment, Prion, Elk, Chronic wasting disease, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Prions, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies