Runner Up: Prions hit the press

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Science  20 Dec 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5295, pp. 1988
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5295.1988b

In 1996, “prion,” short for “proteinaceous infectious particle,” became a household word that commanded respect and fear from Blackpool to Bavaria. Earlier blamed for 160,000 cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in British cows, prions this year were suspected of jumping the species barrier to cause a new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a crippling neurodegenerative disease of humans.

As a result, despite a continuing ban on infected animals entering the food chain, public confidence in British beef crashed. Other nations banned British beef imports and refused to reconsider, especially when scientists in November revealed chemical similarities between prions from BSE-infected cows and people with the new CJD variant. The European Union finally launched a $63.5 million research program in these diseases.

Meanwhile, debate continues on whether proteins alone, without any nucleic acids, can exist in different strains, as argued on page 2079, and whether they can really transmit disease. This year's results showing that a protein can pass a trait between mother and daughter yeast cells may help. But there is plenty of work to be done before reaching final answers about the hazards of these sturdy bits of protein.


News Stories:

  • R. Mestel, Special News Report: “Putting Prions to the Test,” Science, 12 July 1996, p. 184.

  • C. O'Brien, “Mad Cow Disease: Protein Test Favors BSE-CJD Link,” Science, 1 November 1996, p. 721.

  • C. O'Brien, “Mad Cow Disease: Scant Data Cause Widespread Concern,” Science, 29 March 1996, p. 1798.

  • G. Vogel, “Yeast Prions: DNA-Free Genetics?” Science, 2 August 1996, p. 580.

Research Papers:

  • J. Collinge et al., Nature 383, 695-690 (1996).

  • M. M. Patino, J.-J. Liu, J. R. Glover, “Support for the Prion Hypothesis for Inheritance of a Phenotypic Trait in Yeast,” Science, 2 August 1996, p. 622.

  • R. G. Will et al., Lancet 347, 921-925, 1996.

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