Background: It has been proposed that the prion, the infectious agent of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, is PrPSc, a post-translationally modified form of the normal host protein PrPC. We showed previously that mice devoid of PrPC (Prn-p0/0) are completely resistant to scrapie. We now report on the unexpected response of heterozygous (Prn-p0/+) mice to scrapie infection.
Materials and methods: Prn-p0/+, Prn-p0/0 and Prn-p+/+ mice were obtained from crosses of Prn-p0/+ mice. Mice were inoculated intracerebrally with mouse-adapted scrapie agent and the clinical progression of the disease recorded. Mice were sacrificed at intervals, PrPSc was determined as protease-resistant PrP and the prion titer by the incubation time assay.
Results: Prn-p0/+ mice, which have about half the normal level of PrPC in their brains, show enhanced resistance to scrapie, as manifested by a significant delay in onset and progression of clinical disease. However, while in wild type animals an increase in prion titer and PrPSc levels is followed within weeks by scrapie symptoms and death, heterozygous Prn-p0/+ mice remain free of symptoms for many months despite similar levels of scrapie infectivity and PrPSc.
Conclusions: Our findings extend previous reports showing an inverse relationship between PrP expression level and incubation time for scrapie. However, contrary to expectation, overall accumulation of PrPSc and prions to a high level do not necessarily lead to clinical disease. These findings raise the question whether high titers of prion infectivity could also persist for long periods under natural circumstances in the absence of clinical symptoms.