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J R Soc Interface. 2013 Jun 5;10(85):20130331. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2013.0331. Print 2013 Aug 6.

Epidemiological mechanisms of genetic resistance to kuru.

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Yale School of Public Health, 135 College Street, New Haven, CT 06510, USA.


Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), such as kuru, are invariably fatal neurodegenerative conditions caused by a malformation of the prion protein. Heterozygosity of codon 129 of the prion protein gene has been associated with increased host resistance to TSEs, although the mechanism by which this resistance is achieved has not been determined. To evaluate the epidemiological mechanism of human resistance to kuru, we developed a model that combines the dynamics of kuru transmission and the population genetics of human resistance. We fitted our model to kuru data from the epidemic that occurred in Papua New Guinea over the last hundred years. To elucidate the epidemiological mechanism of human resistance, we estimated the incubation period and transmission rate of kuru for codon 129 heterozygotes and homozygotes using kuru incidence data and human genotype frequency data from 1957 to 2004. Our results indicate that human resistance arises from a combination of both a longer incubation period and reduced susceptibility to infection. This work provides evidence for balancing selection acting on a human population and the mechanistic basis for the heterozygote resistance to kuru.


dynamic model; incubation period; prion; reproductive ratio; transmissibility; transmissible spongiform encephalopathy

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