Unexpectedly, Prions Can Move Between Species and Target Organs Other Than the Brain

Unexpectedly, Prions Can Move Between Species and Target Organs Other Than the Brain

A recent post noted that viruses from bush meat can jump from one species to the next, and that as such bush meat poses a major health threat. The mobility of prions has also been underestimated. (For a general description of prions, see Prion.)

Researchers have shown that engineered mice can be infected with prions from cows and goats; additionally, these prions readily target tissues other than the brain. As such, prions may pose a threat of disease to organs other than the brain, the traditional arena of concern involving prions. However, it should be noted that the limited research to date does not show that the prions studied induced disease. But, since this is a new area of inquiry, it is thus possible that we have underestimated the threat posed by prions, not only in terms of transmittability from one species to another, but in terms of the scope of the health threat they pose.

I do not want to give the impression that there is a known major threat, at least not given current knowledge. For the most part, intrinsic biological differences between species prevent these pathogens from jumping hosts. But some prions are known to be transmitted between species, including variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which humans contract after being exposed to mad cow disease in cattle. Further, the experiments noted above suggest that researchers have to date failed to define the scope of the threat, both in terms of a) inter-species transmission, b) the organs that may be impacted, and c) the health threat posed to organs other than the brain.

As I frequently note, stay tuned.

The study can be found at: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6067/472.abstract.

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