Understanding the Potential Dangers of Prion Diseases

2011-01-12 | |
Last updated: 2011-01-12

Even with little medical background, most of us are familiar with the various forms of infectious disease that can compromise our health. Whether it is from viruses, bacteria, fungus or parasites, we have, for the most part, heard of infections that result from these causes. When it comes to prion diseases, however, we may have heard of specific diseases, but not necessarily understood what was causing them. When the nature of prion diseases is better understood, however, it becomes apparent that ongoing vigilance is required to protect public health.

What Are Prion Diseases?

Prion diseases are a type of infectious disease that is caused by proteins with an altered, folded shape. Unlike viruses that hijack the cells of the body to reproduce, prions convert certain other proteins into prions merely by interacting with them. The result is that only a few prions can rapidly generate a growing army of affected proteins. As the disease progresses, it causes the aggregation of these prions within the cells which ultimately results in significant cell and tissue damage causing death. No known treatments yet exist to halt the disease.

One example of such a prion disease that has been well publicized is the brain-wasting condition known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. It has been sensationalized with the name “Mad Cow” disease because of its spread to humans from cattle.

Aside from the devastating effects on the brain, prions can also affect a number of other cells in the body. Researchers from Case Western Reserve University have observed that prions promote the growth of pancreatic cancer; a particularly deadly cancer where only 10% of those diagnosed survive at least 5 years. As well, research from Rocky Mountain Laboratories also observed damage to the heart in animals affected by a form of prion disease similar to those that affect humans.

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Category: Disease Information, Disease Prevention, General Health, Health Risks

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