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Airborne Prions Prove Lethal In Mouse Studies 116

sgunhouse writes "Wired has a story up on the lethality of airborne prions. It should be noted that prions (which cause 'mad cow disease' and similar disorders) are not normally airborne, and take a long time to kill the infected animal, but so far are 100% lethal if something else doesn't kill the animal first. So, they are not likely to be useful as a biological weapon (my first thought when reading their headline), but they present another safety precaution to consider."
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Airborne Prions Prove Lethal In Mouse Studies

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  • Re:In other words (Score:5, Informative)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @07:45PM (#34885230) Homepage

    More importantly, take more precautions if you work with slaughtered pigs and cows in a meat packing facility/slaughterhouse.

    Indeed, just below TFA was this [wired.com] little blurb pointing out exactly that - workers on a pig brain processing line came down with a serious autoimmune disorder linked to heavy exposure to pig brain pieces. Not prion linked apparently, but certainly a potential occupational hazard to all you Zombies out there.

  • Tagline is wrong (Score:5, Informative)

    by PCM2 ( 4486 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @07:57PM (#34885346) Homepage

    I am not a biologist, but based on my reading of TFA, the scientists successfully infected immunodeficient and immunocompetent mice. It's counterintuitive, but the fact that the disease incubated in the immunodeficient mice at the same rate as the immunocompetent mice is what makes the research significant.

    The immune system actually seems to play some kind of a role in prion diseases, acting as a kind of Trojan horse mechanism to spread the infection. It's not totally clear how this works, but the research supports that it happens. So what these scientists did is they inoculated immunodeficient mice with prions and observed them coming down with the prion disease in pretty much the exact same way as the immunocompetent ones. This establishes that a functioning immune system is not actually necessary for infection via aerosol. This means that an immunodeficient mouse, even when kept in semi-isolation, can potentially come down with a prion disease from an aerosol source even when it doesn't come in direct contact with any infected tissues.

    That's a pretty big deal when you consider a lot of scientists in research laboratories might be working with immunodeficient mice, in the mistaken assumption that the mice will be safe from prion infection. The recommendation of this paper is that research lab safety guidelines note aerosols as a possible vector for prion infections, which they do not do now. I don't think this is really a warning aimed at keeping people from being infected. For the time being, at least, it's more about keeping research from being spoiled when lab animals come down with infections from unforeseen aerosol sources.

  • by PCM2 ( 4486 ) on Friday January 14, 2011 @08:04PM (#34885414) Homepage

    How long do the exist in prion form left to themselves I wonder. Can they exist in some dried powder form forever? Or do they spontaneously disintegrate into constituent compounds?

    Scientists have taken prion-infected tissue and reduced it to ashes in a crucible at 600 C, and there were still viable, infective prions in the ashes.

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling