All about prions

All about prions
Photo by CDC / Unsplash

Prions are a unique type of protein that can cause diseases in both animals and humans. Unlike most proteins, which are responsible for performing various functions in the body, prions are infectious and have the ability to cause abnormal folding of proteins in the brain, leading to a range of neurodegenerative diseases.

The term "prion" was first coined in 1982 by Stanley Prusiner, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. He proposed that these infectious proteins were responsible for a group of fatal neurodegenerative disorders known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), which includes conditions such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or "mad cow disease," in cattle.

Prions are thought to be composed of a single protein, called the prion protein (PrP), which can exist in two different forms: a normal, benign form and a misfolded, infectious form. The normal form of the protein is found throughout the body and is usually anchored to the surface of cells. In its infectious form, however, the prion protein aggregates into clumps and causes abnormal folding of other proteins in the brain, leading to the formation of characteristic lesions and neurodegeneration.

The exact mechanism by which prions cause disease is not well understood, but it is thought to involve a chain reaction in which the misfolded prion protein causes other proteins to misfold as well. This can lead to the formation of large aggregates of misfolded proteins, called plaques, which are toxic to brain cells and can cause cell death and tissue damage.

Prions are unique in that they are not alive and do not contain any genetic material, such as DNA or RNA. This means that they cannot be destroyed by traditional means, such as heating or radiation, which are typically used to kill bacteria and viruses. Instead, prions are resistant to many common disinfection methods and can remain infectious for long periods of time.

One of the most well-known examples of a prion-caused disease is BSE, which emerged in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s. BSE was caused by the misfolded form of the prion protein, which was transmitted to cattle through contaminated feed. The infected cattle then developed neurological symptoms and were eventually euthanized.

In humans, the most common form of prion disease is CJD, which typically affects older individuals and is characterized by rapid cognitive decline, memory loss, and changes in behavior. CJD is a rare disease, with an incidence of approximately 1 in 1 million people worldwide. However, there are also rarer forms of CJD that can be inherited or acquired through certain medical procedures, such as contaminated growth hormone injections or dural grafts.

The transmission of prion diseases can also occur through contaminated medical instruments, such as surgical instruments or brain biopsy needles. This has led to strict guidelines for the sterilization of medical instruments and the disposal of tissue from individuals with prion diseases.

Currently, there is no cure for prion diseases and no effective treatment. The best approach is to prevent the spread of infection through proper sterilization techniques and safe handling of tissue from infected individuals. Research is ongoing to better understand the mechanisms of prion diseases and to develop potential treatments.

In conclusion, prions are unique infectious proteins that can cause neurodegenerative diseases in both animals and humans. These diseases are often fatal and there is currently no cure. It is important to take precautions to prevent the spread of prion infections, such as proper sterilization of medical instruments and safe.