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Prion research leads to novel diagnostic approaches

Improving our understanding of the prion strain phenomenon and how it is transmitted through different species will help develop new assays for diagnosis and potential treatment regimens.
Prion research leads to novel diagnostic approaches
Since the first description of prions, various strains of these highly infectious proteins have been identified, indicating that delineation of their features and mode of action is not going to be an easy process. Promiscuous strains present a public health threat if they propagate through the food chain, while remaining either undetected or misidentified. Scattered cases of the neurodegenerative disease scrapie, found in sheep and goats across Europe, illustrate this danger.

The lack of appropriate diagnostic methods for the prompt detection of prions poses a significant health hazard. To address this, the EU-funded ‘Understanding prion strains and species barriers and devising novel diagnostic approaches’ (Strainbarrier) project proposed to study fundamental aspects of prion strains and their relationship to the species barrier. The aim was to utilise this knowledge towards the development of diagnostic methodologies for detecting prions and predicting their epidemiological behaviour.

By using various animal models, project scientists systematically studied the transmission mode of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and scrapie strains, their species barriers and the potential for transmission to humans. The behaviour of strains as they crossed species as well as incubation time, stability and biochemical properties were carefully delineated.

The project also dealt with the investigation of infectious protein structure, cell biology and pathogenesis, providing invaluable data on the prion synthesis compartments, the tunnelling transport through cells and the signalling pathways implicated in infection. Furthermore, the improved detection of prions in brain sections alongside various strain-dependent reagents, such as antibodies and binding peptides, has the potential to be used for diagnostic methodologies.

Strainbarrier generated a very large body of data that is expected to help epidemiologists and health authorities predict possible disease transmission from one species to another. Implementation of this information into disease management measures can have a beneficial impact on food safety and public health.

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