A novel protective prion protein variant that colocalizes with kuru exposure

N Engl J Med. 2009 Nov 19;361(21):2056-65. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa0809716.


Background: Kuru is a devastating epidemic prion disease that affected a highly restricted geographic area of the Papua New Guinea highlands; at its peak, it predominantly affected adult women and children of both sexes. Its incidence has steadily declined since the cessation of its route of transmission, endocannibalism.

Methods: We performed genetic and selected clinical and genealogic assessments of more than 3000 persons from Eastern Highland populations, including 709 who participated in cannibalistic mortuary feasts, 152 of whom subsequently died of kuru.

Results: Persons who were exposed to kuru and survived the epidemic in Papua New Guinea are predominantly heterozygotes at the known resistance factor at codon 129 of the prion protein gene (PRNP). We now report a novel PRNP variant--G127V--that was found exclusively in people who lived in the region in which kuru was prevalent and that was present in half of the otherwise susceptible women from the region of highest exposure who were homozygous for methionine at PRNP codon 129. Although this allele is common in the area with the highest incidence of kuru, it is not found in patients with kuru and in unexposed population groups worldwide. Genealogic analysis reveals a significantly lower incidence of kuru in pedigrees that harbor the protective allele than in geographically matched control families.

Conclusions: The 127V polymorphism is an acquired prion disease resistance factor selected during the kuru epidemic, rather than a pathogenic mutation that could have triggered the kuru epidemic. Variants at codons 127 and 129 of PRNP demonstrate the population genetic response to an epidemic of prion disease and represent a powerful episode of recent selection in humans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cannibalism
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Female
  • Gene Frequency
  • Genetic Fitness
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Genotype
  • Haplotypes
  • Humans
  • Kuru / epidemiology
  • Kuru / genetics*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Papua New Guinea / epidemiology
  • Polymorphism, Genetic*
  • Prion Proteins
  • Prions / genetics*
  • Young Adult


  • PRNP protein, human
  • Prion Proteins
  • Prions