More than just mad cow disease

More than just mad cow disease

April, 2001 Nature Structural Biology Vol. 8 no. p. 281
It is now clear that bovine spongiform encephalopathy(BSE) also known as 'mad cow disease,' is not merely a UK phenomenon, nor is it merely an economic nuisance. In fact it may be an impending world-wide health crisis. [...] Since the incubation time of the infection -- the time from ingestion to the onset of symptoms -- is unknown, we have no idea how many people who currently do not show symptoms are actually harboring the brain-destroying infectious prions. [...]

Many are viewing the BSE/vCJD situation as reminscent of the early days of the AIDS crisis -- with fear of a global pandemic. In this case, the infectious agent could be even more insidious than HIV: it is transmitted through food consumption, and possibly through blood transfusion and the use of vaccines and other drugs developed using bovine products (including serum), and even through the re-use of surgical instruments since infectious prions are not easily destroyed by traditional sterilizing protocol. Infectious prions are much more difficult to detect in the body than a virus; currently diagnoses of vCJD are confirmed after death by looking at brain tissue. [...] Thus it may prove more difficult to protect oneself from infectious prions, if a large human poulation already harbors them, than to protect oneself from HIV. [...]

Clearly work on prions is progressing, but the research community nevertheless faces a formidable task. increased financial support for prion studies (as well as for amyloid research in general) and a more concerted research effort will be needed to make rapid progress. Both are essential, given the potential global threat posed by these insidious agents.

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