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Concept: Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy


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


How small heat shock proteins (sHsps) might empower proteostasis networks to control beneficial prions or disassemble pathological amyloid is unknown. Here, we establish that yeast sHsps, Hsp26 and Hsp42, inhibit prionogenesis by the [PSI+] prion protein, Sup35, via distinct and synergistic mechanisms. Hsp42 prevents conformational rearrangements within molten oligomers that enable de novo prionogenesis and collaborates with Hsp70 to attenuate self-templating. By contrast, Hsp26 inhibits self-templating upon binding assembled prions. sHsp binding destabilizes Sup35 prions and promotes their disaggregation by Hsp104, Hsp70, and Hsp40. In yeast, Hsp26 or Hsp42 overexpression prevents [PSI+] induction, cures [PSI+], and potentiates [PSI+]-curing by Hsp104 overexpression. In vitro, sHsps enhance Hsp104-catalyzed disaggregation of pathological amyloid forms of α-synuclein and polyglutamine. Unexpectedly, in the absence of Hsp104, sHsps promote an unprecedented, gradual depolymerization of Sup35 prions by Hsp110, Hsp70, and Hsp40. This unanticipated amyloid-depolymerase activity is conserved from yeast to humans, which lack Hsp104 orthologues. A human sHsp, HspB5, stimulates depolymerization of α-synuclein amyloid by human Hsp110, Hsp70, and Hsp40. Thus, we elucidate a heretofore-unrecognized human amyloid-depolymerase system that could have applications in various neurodegenerative disorders.

Concepts: Proteins, Protein, Cell, Protein folding, Prion, Amyloid, Heat shock protein, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy


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


Neurodegenerative diseases are a very diverse group of disorders but they share some common mechanisms such as abnormally misfolded proteins with prion-like propagation and aggregation. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is the most prevalent prion disease in humans. In the sporadic form of CJD the only known risk factor is the codon 129 polymorphism. Recent reports suggested that α-synuclein in multiple system atrophy (MSA) has similar pathogenic mechanisms as the prion protein. Here we present 1 Italian family with MSA and prion disease. Also, cases of concurrent MSA and prion pathology in the same individual or family suggest the possibility of molecular interaction between prion protein and α-synuclein in the process of protein accumulation and neurodegeneration, warranting further investigations. We assessed the PRNP gene by whole-exome sequencing in 264 pathologically confirmed MSA cases and 462 healthy controls to determine whether the 2 diseases share similar risk factors. We then analyzed codon 129 polymorphism by Sanger sequencing and compared with previously published results in sporadic CJD. Homozygosity at codon 129 was present in 50% of pathologically confirmed MSA cases and in 58% of normal controls (odds ratio, 0.7 (95% confidence interval of 0.5-0.9)) compared with 88.2% in sporadic CJD. Our data show that the homozygous state of position 129 in the PRNP is not a risk factor for MSA. No other variants in the PRNP gene were associated with increased risk for MSA.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Epidemiology, Molecular biology, Prion, Neurodegenerative disorders, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy


Hypochlorous acid (HOCl) is produced naturally by neutrophils and other cells to kill conventional microbes in vivo. Synthetic preparations containing HOCl can also be effective as microbial disinfectants. Here we have tested whether HOCl can also inactivate prions and other self-propagating protein amyloid seeds. Prions are deadly pathogens that are notoriously difficult to inactivate, and standard microbial disinfection protocols are often inadequate. Recommended treatments for prion decontamination include strongly basic (pH ≥~12) sodium hypochlorite bleach, ≥1 N sodium hydroxide, and/or prolonged autoclaving. These treatments are damaging and/or unsuitable for many clinical, agricultural and environmental applications. We have tested the anti-prion activity of a weakly acidic aqueous formulation of HOCl (BrioHOCl) that poses no apparent hazard to either users or many surfaces. For example, BrioHOCl can be applied directly to skin and mucous membranes and has been aerosolized to treat entire rooms without apparent deleterious effects. Here, we demonstrate that immersion in BrioHOCl can inactivate not only a range of target microbes, including spores of Bacillus subtilis, but also prions in tissue suspensions and on stainless steel. Real-time quaking-induced conversion (RT-QuIC) assays showed that BrioHOCl treatments eliminated all detectable prion seeding activity of human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, cervine chronic wasting disease, sheep scrapie and hamster scrapie; these findings indicated reductions of ≥103- to 106-fold. Transgenic mouse bioassays showed that all detectable hamster-adapted scrapie infectivity in brain homogenates or on steel wires was eliminated, representing reductions of ≥~105.75-fold and >104-fold, respectively. Inactivation of RT-QuIC seeding activity correlated with free chlorine concentration and higher order aggregation or destruction of proteins generally, including prion protein. BrioHOCl treatments had similar effects on amyloids composed of human α-synuclein and a fragment of human tau. These results indicate that HOCl can block the self-propagating activity of prions and other amyloids.

Concepts: Acid, Prion, Chlorine, Hypochlorous acid, Scrapie, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Sodium hypochlorite


During prion disease, an increase in misfolded prion protein (PrP) generated by prion replication leads to sustained overactivation of the branch of the unfolded protein response (UPR) that controls the initiation of protein synthesis. This results in persistent repression of translation, resulting in the loss of critical proteins that leads to synaptic failure and neuronal death. We have previously reported that localized genetic manipulation of this pathway rescues shutdown of translation and prevents neurodegeneration in a mouse model of prion disease, suggesting that pharmacological inhibition of this pathway might be of therapeutic benefit. We show that oral treatment with a specific inhibitor of the kinase PERK (protein kinase RNA-like endoplasmic reticulum kinase), a key mediator of this UPR pathway, prevented UPR-mediated translational repression and abrogated development of clinical prion disease in mice, with neuroprotection observed throughout the mouse brain. This was the case for animals treated both at the preclinical stage and also later in disease when behavioral signs had emerged. Critically, the compound acts downstream and independently of the primary pathogenic process of prion replication and is effective despite continuing accumulation of misfolded PrP. These data suggest that PERK, and other members of this pathway, may be new therapeutic targets for developing drugs against prion disease or other neurodegenerative diseases where the UPR has been implicated.

Concepts: Proteins, Protein, Gene, Infectious disease, Endoplasmic reticulum, Protein folding, Prion, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy


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


More than two hundred individuals developed Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) worldwide as a result of treatment, typically in childhood, with human cadaveric pituitary-derived growth hormone contaminated with prions. Although such treatment ceased in 1985, iatrogenic CJD (iCJD) continues to emerge because of the prolonged incubation periods seen in human prion infections. Unexpectedly, in an autopsy study of eight individuals with iCJD, aged 36-51 years, in four we found moderate to severe grey matter and vascular amyloid-β (Aβ) pathology. The Aβ deposition in the grey matter was typical of that seen in Alzheimer’s disease and Aβ in the blood vessel walls was characteristic of cerebral amyloid angiopathy and did not co-localize with prion protein deposition. None of these patients had pathogenic mutations, APOE ε4 or other high-risk alleles associated with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Examination of a series of 116 patients with other prion diseases from a prospective observational cohort study showed minimal or no Aβ pathology in cases of similar age range, or a decade older, without APOE ε4 risk alleles. We also analysed pituitary glands from individuals with Aβ pathology and found marked Aβ deposition in multiple cases. Experimental seeding of Aβ pathology has been previously demonstrated in primates and transgenic mice by central nervous system or peripheral inoculation with Alzheimer’s disease brain homogenate. The marked deposition of parenchymal and vascular Aβ in these relatively young patients with iCJD, in contrast with other prion disease patients and population controls, is consistent with iatrogenic transmission of Aβ pathology in addition to CJD and suggests that healthy exposed individuals may also be at risk of iatrogenic Alzheimer’s disease and cerebral amyloid angiopathy. These findings should also prompt investigation of whether other known iatrogenic routes of prion transmission may also be relevant to Aβ and other proteopathic seeds associated with neurodegenerative and other human diseases.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Prion, Amyloid, Neurodegenerative disorders, Dementia, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Cerebral amyloid angiopathy


The mechanisms of neuronal death in protein misfolding neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and prion diseases are poorly understood. We used a highly toxic misfolded prion protein (TPrP) model to understand neurotoxicity induced by prion protein misfolding. We show that abnormal autophagy activation and neuronal demise is due to severe, neuron-specific, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD(+)) depletion. Toxic prion protein-exposed neuronal cells exhibit dramatic reductions of intracellular NAD(+) followed by decreased ATP production, and are completely rescued by treatment with NAD(+) or its precursor nicotinamide because of restoration of physiological NAD(+) levels. Toxic prion protein-induced NAD(+) depletion results from PARP1-independent excessive protein ADP-ribosylations. In vivo, toxic prion protein-induced degeneration of hippocampal neurons is prevented dose-dependently by intracerebral injection of NAD(+). Intranasal NAD(+) treatment of prion-infected sick mice significantly improves activity and delays motor impairment. Our study reveals NAD(+) starvation as a novel mechanism of autophagy activation and neurodegeneration induced by a misfolded amyloidogenic protein. We propose the development of NAD(+) replenishment strategies for neuroprotection in prion diseases and possibly other protein misfolding neurodegenerative diseases.

Concepts: Neuron, Adenosine triphosphate, Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, Prion, Neurology, Neurodegeneration, Neurodegenerative disorders, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy


IMPORTANCE Growing evidence of cell-to-cell transmission of neurodegenerative disease (ND)-associated proteins (NDAPs) (ie, tau, Aβ, and α-synuclein) suggests possible similarities to the infectious prion protein (PrPsc) in spongiform encephalopathies. There are limited data on the potential human-to-human transmission of NDAPs associated with Alzheimer disease (AD) and other non-PrPsc ND. OBJECTIVE To examine evidence for human-to-human transmission of AD, Parkinson disease (PD), and related NDAPs in cadaveric human growth hormone (c-hGH) recipients. DESIGN We conducted a detailed immunohistochemical analysis of pathological NDAPs other than PrPsc in human pituitary glands. We also searched for ND in recipients of pituitary-derived c-hGH by reviewing the National Hormone and Pituitary Program (NHPP) cohort database and medical literature. SETTING University-based academic center and agencies of the US Department of Health and Human Services. PARTICIPANTS Thirty-four routine autopsy subjects (10 non-ND controls and 24 patients with ND) and a US cohort of c-hGH recipients in the NHPP. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES Detectable NDAPs in human pituitary sections and death certificate reports of non-PrPsc ND in the NHPP database. RESULTS We found mild amounts of pathological tau, Aβ, and α-synuclein deposits in the adeno/neurohypophysis of patients with ND and control patients. No cases of AD or PD were identified, and 3 deaths attributed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) were found among US NHPP c-hGH recipients, including 2 of the 796 decedents in the originally confirmed NHPP c-hGH cohort database. CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE Despite the likely frequent exposure of c-hGH recipients to NDAPs, and their markedly elevated risk of PrPsc-related disease, this population of NHPP c-hGH recipients does not appear to be at increased risk of AD or PD. We discovered 3 ALS cases of unclear significance among US c-hGH recipients despite the absence of pathological deposits of ALS-associated proteins (TDP-43, FUS, and ubiquilin) in human pituitary glands. In this unique in vivo model of human-to-human transmission, we found no evidence to support concerns that NDAPs underlying AD and PD transmit disease in humans despite evidence of their cell-to-cell transmission in model systems of these disorders. Further monitoring is required to confirm these conclusions.

Concepts: Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, Growth hormone, Prion, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Neurodegenerative disorders, Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Endocrine gland