Friday, May 26, 2006

Nature's Perfect Killing Machine: The Prion

Most diseases are caused by a virus, bacteria or fungus-- things that you can usually treat with modern drugs. One exception is Mad Cow Disease (otherwise know as BSE), which is caused by the mysterious prion. What's a prion? Both indestructible and fatal, prions are nature's perfect killing machine

According to Wikipedia, prion is short for "proteinaceous infectious particle." If I'm reading the entry right, these are naturally occurring proteins that are somehow mutated into brain-rotting monsters. At PBS's "Nova" website, there's
a feature on Mad Cow disease where one expert says, "[prions] affect the brain, disrupting or destroying neurons in large numbers, which inevitably leads to the death of the infected animal."

Frighteningly, scientists can't say exactly how prions replicate and that's part of the reason they can't say how to destroy them. And believe me, they've tried. According to the "Nova" Mad Cow feature, not chemicals, enzymes nor radiation can destroy prions. This leads them to believe that prions do not contain nucleic acid. And that's odd, because genes are made of nucleic acid, thus they are considered the blueprint of all living and pseudo-living things; from viruses to giraffes. But not prions.

The good news is that Mad Cow disease appears more-or-less contained. According to an article from earlier this month
in the San Diego Union Tribune, the last major outbreak of Mad Cow was in the U.K. and peaked in 1993. Here in the U.S., the USDA said recently, "the data shows the prevalence of BSE in the United States is extraordinarily low," reports the Seattle PI.

Then again,
reports from just last week say more Britons than originally suspected may have been affected by the BSE outbreak in the early nineties. BSE can lay dormant for decades, so it's difficult to tell how big the problem is.

One thing is for sure: medical science ought to figure out how prions behave and how to destroy them before a new threat emerges.


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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.