Not only do mad cow disease and its human equivalent, the brain disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob, resist known treatment and vaccination methods, but they are virtually impossible to diagnose in living organisms. However, Dr. Neil Cashman of the Faculty of Medicine and his team have uncovered the basis for a vaccine, an immuno-therapy and a diagnostic screening test that could potentially combat the two diseases.
Scientists believe that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is caused by a harmful form of the prion protein. Over the past 15 years, researchers have tried unsuccessfully to raise antibodies (produced by the immune system) to fight infectious prions in the body.
Cashman considered the problem on a submolecular level by raising antibodies to react to one particular amino acid sequence. The antibodies were able to recognize the abnormal prion as an invader and attack it. “It was a ‘Eureka!’ moment,” he says. “While the antibodies recognized the abnormal prions, they left the normal prion proteins intact.”
The researchers are now testing a possible vaccine against prion disease in mice. Although a vaccine is still at least five years away, this research is a huge step forward in detecting the enemy.