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FEBS Lett. 2002 Oct 2;529(1):17-21.

Prion diseases: pathogenesis and public health concerns.

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  • 1CEA, Service de Neurovirologie, CRSSA, EPHE, P.O. Box 6, Fontenay-aux-Roses, France.


Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) agents or prions induce neurodegenerative fatal diseases in humans and in some mammalian species. Human TSEs include Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker syndrome, kuru and fatal familial insomnia. In animals, scrapie in sheep and goats, feline spongiform encephalopathy, transmissible mink encephalopathy, chronic wasting disease in wild ruminants, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which appeared in the UK in the mid-1980s [Wells, G.A.H. et al. (1987) Vet. Rec. 121, 419-420], belong to the TSE group. Prions have biological and physicochemical characteristics that differ significantly from those of other microorganisms; for example, they are resistant to inactivation processes that are effective against conventional viruses, including those that alter nucleic acid structure or function. Alternatively, infectivity is highly susceptible to procedures that modify protein conformation. Today, the exact nature of prions remains unknown even though it is likely that they consist of protein only. At the biochemical level, TSEs are characterised by the accumulation, within the central nervous system of the infected individual, of an abnormal isoform of a particular protein from the host, the prion protein [Prusiner, S.B. (1982) Science 216, 136-144]. TSEs are transmissible among their species of origin, but they can also cross the species barrier and induce chronic infection and/or disease in other species. Transmissibility has been proven in natural situations such as the outbreak of CJD among patients treated with pituitary-derived hormones and the appearance of BSE that affected UK cattle in the mid-1980s.

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