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Monday, November 14, 2005 

Prions popping up all over the place

Just a few weeks back, I discussed new research showing that prions had been found in urine. Now, a new paper in Nature(Nature summary) shows that the prion protein has been found in the mammary glands of sheep affected with scrapie.
The inflamed mammary glands of sheep have been found to contain protein particles that cause scrapie, a sickness similar to mad cow disease. This suggests that the suspect proteins, called prions, may also be present in the milk of infected animals.

If prions exist in the milk of cows infected with both an inflammatory illness and mad cow disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), this raises concerns for human health. Consumption of prion-contaminated meat from cows with BSE is believed to cause the fatal variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in people; so might contaminated milk.

Man, that just opens up a whole new can o' worms. Pasteurization, which works well against bacteria, likely wouldn't put a dent in prion contamination in milk. Those suckers can survive full-out burning and still remain infectious.

The good news, though: so far, no prions have been found directly in the milk (though researchers expect to find them there in the future). Concentrations of prion in the mammary tissue was many times lower than that found in the brain. Additionally, prion presence in the mammary glands was correlated with infection by the Maedi Visna virus, so some other kind of infection may be necessary in order to have prion in that tissue.

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About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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