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Methods Mol Biol. 2004;268:517-40.

Molecular aspects of disease pathogenesis in the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

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  • 1National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Rocky Montain Laboratories, Hamilton, MT, USA.


The transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) diseases are a group of rare, fatal, and transmissible neurodegenerative diseases that include kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans, scrapie in sheep, transmissible mink encephalopathy (TME), and chronic wasting disease (CWD) in mule deer and elk. Over the last 20 yr, they have gone from a fascinating but relatively obscure group of diseases to one that is a major agricultural and economic problem as well as a threat to human health. The shift in the relative impact of the TSE diseases began in the late 1970s when the United Kingdom altered the process by which animal carcasses were rendered to provide a protein supplement (i.e., meat and bone meal) to sheep, cattle, and other livestock. Several years later a new disease was recognized in the British cattle population. The pathological and immunohistochemical characteristics of the disease clearly placed it among the TSEs. The new disease was named bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) by the scientific community and "mad cow disease" by the less-than-scientific press. At its peak in the UK, several thousand cattle a year were diagnosed with BSE, and millions of cattle were slaughtered. Introduction of the specified offals ban as well as banning the practice of feeding ruminants to other ruminants has led to a drastic decrease in the number of yearly BSE cases in the UK (less than 500 in 2003), and the epidemic is clearly on the wane. However, BSE has now spread throughout the rest of Europe, as well as to Japan, Russia, Canada, and Israel and thus remains a worldwide problem.A primary concern following the identification of BSE in 1985 was that it might cross species barriers to infect humans. Initially, it was thought that transmission of BSE to humans was unlikely, given that humans appeared to be resistant to scrapie, an animal TSE that had been endemic in British sheep for centuries. However, a few years after BSE was first recognized, a previously unknown form of CJD (variant CJD or vCJD) was identified in young people in Great Britain. The hypothesis that vCJD was the consequence of exposure of humans to BSE has now been supported by several different studies, and over 140 cases of vCJD have been confirmed.

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