Could diabetes spread like mad cow disease?
Prions are insidious proteins that spread like infectious agents and trigger fatal conditions such as mad cow disease. A protein implicated in diabetes, a new study suggests, shares some similarities with these villains. Researchers transmitted diabetes from one mouse to another just by injecting the animals with this protein. The results don’t indicate that diabetes is contagious like a cold, but blood transfusions, or even food, may spread the disease.
The work is “very exciting” and “well-documented” for showing that the protein has some prionlike behavior, says prion biologist Witold Surewicz of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who wasn’t connected to the research. However, he cautions against jumping to the conclusion that diabetes spreads from person to person. The study raises that possibility, he says, but “it remains to be determined.”
Prions are misfolded proteins that can cause normally folded versions of the same protein to misfold themselves. When this conversion occurs in the brain, the distorted proteins bunch up inside cells and kill them. Although prion diseases are rare in people, they share some similarities with more common illnesses. In Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, globs of a misshapen protein known as β amyloid build up in the brain. Parkinson’s disease and Huntington disease, two other brain maladies, also feature aggregates, or lumps of misfolded proteins.
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