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Lab closure sparks fears that US prion research is waning

Nature volume 430, page 596 (05 August 2004) | Download Citation

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Scientists call for renewed effort in studying proteins that cause brain disease

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A major lab dedicated to studying prions closed down last week, causing some to worry about the future of research on these proteins in the United States. But at the same time, another US lab revealed findings emphasizing the importance of prions in brain-wasting diseases.

The Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) in Bethesda, Maryland, has long conducted research on prions. These are the infectious agents thought to cause conditions such as mad cow disease and its human version, variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.

Work at NINDS has been winding down for some years and came to a halt on 30 July with the retirement of its medical director Paul Brown. The closure leaves the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with just one major in-house prion research facility, at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana.

“The idea of losing the whole NINDS facility is devastating,” says virologist Dean Cliver of the University of California, Davis, who has advised government agencies on prion-research strategy. The closure reflects the lack of interest in prion research in the United States, he adds.

Bruce Chesebro, who heads the prion lab at Rocky Mountain, says that NIH labs with secure, long-term funding are important for prion research because animals take months or years to develop symptoms. Last November, the Institute of Medicine also recommended that the NIH should strengthen its in-house prion research.

A handful of other US labs study prions, including Stanley Prusiner's facility at the University of California, San Francisco. Prusiner won a Nobel prize in 1997 for his work in identifying prions as a disease-causing agent. This week, he and his group announced that they had created a prion protein in bacteria and shown that it caused disease when injected into the brains of mice (G. Legname et al. Science 305, 673–676; 2004), strengthening the hypothesis that prions cause disease without the help of genetic material.

US scientists acknowledge the quality of such work, but say they need more labs to keep up with the pace of research in Europe. The NINDS is considering recruiting another lab in the field, says Eugene Major, acting director of the institute's neuroscience programme.

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