Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) have found a method to detect the proteins in the blood that cause the "mad cow disease" in people. According to their findings, it is now possible to detect biochemically the prions that are there in the blood causing the disease.
The study was reported in the current online version of Nature Medicine. The findings from the study are expected to lead to a much more effective detection method for the infectious proteins responsible for brain-destroying disorders, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) in humans.
The blood test would make it much easier to keep BSE-infected beef out of the human food supply, ensure that blood transfusions and organ transplants do not transmit vCJD, and give researchers their first chance to figure out how many people may be incubating the disease.
Researchers had applied a method they call protein misfolding cyclic amplification (PMCA) to blood samples taken from 18 prion-infected hamsters that had developed clinical symptoms of prion disease. PMCA uses sound waves to vastly accelerate the process that prions use to convert normal proteins to misshapen infectious forms.
Successive rounds of PMCA led to the discovery of prions in the blood of 16 of the 18 infected hamsters. No prions were found in blood samples that were taken from 12 healthy control hamsters and subjected to the same treatment.
Tests for infectious prions in cattle and human blood are badly needed. Because current tests require post-slaughter brain tissue for analysis, in the United States only cattle already showing clinical symptoms of BSE (so-called "downer cows") are tested for the disorder.