The Expanding Universe of Prion Diseases

PLoS Pathog. 2006 Mar;2(3):e26. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.0020026.


Prions cause fatal and transmissible neurodegenerative disease. These etiological infectious agents are formed in greater part from a misfolded cell-surface protein called PrP(C). Several mammalian species are affected by the diseases, and in the case of "mad cow disease" (BSE) the agent has a tropism for humans, with negative consequences for agribusiness and public health. Unfortunately, the known universe of prion diseases is expanding. At least four novel prion diseases--including human diseases variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) and sporadic fatal insomnia (sFI), bovine amyloidotic spongiform encephalopathy (BASE), and Nor98 of sheep--have been identified in the last ten years, and chronic wasting disease (CWD) of North American deer (Odocoileus Specis) and Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) is undergoing a dramatic spread across North America. While amplification (BSE) and dissemination (CWD, commercial sourcing of cervids from the wild and movement of farmed elk) can be attributed to human activity, the origins of emergent prion diseases cannot always be laid at the door of humankind. Instead, the continued appearance of new outbreaks in the form of "sporadic" disease may be an inevitable outcome in a situation where the replicating pathogen is host-encoded.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cattle
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Syndrome / etiology
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Syndrome / pathology
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Syndrome / transmission
  • Deer
  • Encephalopathy, Bovine Spongiform / etiology
  • Encephalopathy, Bovine Spongiform / pathology
  • Encephalopathy, Bovine Spongiform / transmission
  • Humans
  • Insomnia, Fatal Familial / etiology
  • Insomnia, Fatal Familial / pathology
  • Insomnia, Fatal Familial / transmission
  • PrPSc Proteins
  • Prion Diseases / etiology*
  • Prion Diseases / pathology*
  • Prion Diseases / transmission
  • Prions / physiology*
  • Scrapie / etiology
  • Scrapie / pathology
  • Scrapie / transmission
  • Sheep
  • Wasting Disease, Chronic / etiology
  • Wasting Disease, Chronic / pathology
  • Wasting Disease, Chronic / transmission


  • PrPSc Proteins
  • Prions