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Prion Poisoning

Anything can be used as a weapon...
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Some time ago I posted an Idea called "Prion Poison Prevention" (see link), because it seemed to me that prions pose a unique threat that needed to be seriously addressed. Today it occurred to me that because prions exist and are bad, misuse of them is likely to be inevitable. So I am posting this more for the criminal investigation squads, than for the criminals. (There may also be a better place here on the HalfBakery for it, but I don't know where yet.)

If you don't already know, prions are an unusual brain protein that can exist in at least two different shapes. Since the functioning of a protein depends a great deal on its shape, it happens that prions of one shape are not usefully functional. However, that particular shape is still functional in a horrible way: it can cause a properly-shaped and functional prion to become distorted into the useless shape! When this happens for a significant time in the brain, literal holes develop in brain tissue and mental functions diminish until death occurs. There is no cure.

The next bad thing about malformed prions is that they are biologically pretty stable. If an animal has died from bad prions, and it is processed to feed other animals (including humans), then those prions can survive both cooking and digestion, AND enter the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier and begin their ugly task of converting good prions into bad.

Next, prion diseases tend to work slowly. It can be months after eating some bad prions that they start to have a significant effect. Which brings us to the Idea that prions might make a pretty good murder weapon. Put some in someone's salad, and they won't be detectable to the taste, and they are not poisonous in any ordinary sense, and they are not biologically active like bacteria or even viruses, AND the victim will have no idea how the brain-degenerator was acquired. What can the cops do?

I don't know! Obviously we need Prion Poison Prevention more badly than ever!

Vernon, Jul 26 2005

Prion Poison Prevention Prion_20Poison_20Prevention
As mentioned in the main text. [Vernon, Jul 26 2005]

(?) A New Understanding of Protein Mutation Unfolds http://www.american...onid=aaa_sI_s33KRBy
"... refolded with the help of a pharmacological template" American Scientist. July-August 2005. Volume: 93 Number: 4 Page: 314 [reensure, Jul 26 2005]


       Men! Today is the day you prove yourself of honor!   

       Go get those prions.   

       yes, sir.
daseva, Jul 26 2005

       The shape of prions, formed by the protein folding and "mutating", makes it resistant to efforts to destroy the prion. I was wonering whether there were enzymes that could unfold the folded protein to either return it to it's normal state or allow it to be destroyed.   

       I've also read that a prion infecting one species can't easily be introduced into another species, but when it is, it gets more easily transferred in the new species in time.   

       Not that it has any real relevance to this, I just think it's interesting.
pooduck, Jul 26 2005

       Maybe just some lab designed superchaperones?
daseva, Jul 26 2005

       As research progresses. <link>
reensure, Jul 26 2005

       [reensure], thanks, that sounds very promising!   

       [UnaBubba], shouldn't the last part of what you wrote have been "...off the face of Uranus."?
Vernon, Jul 26 2005

       What exactly is the idea...are you suggesting using prions as a weapon?
ldischler, Jul 26 2005

       [ldischler], this is something of a dilemma. I am not suggesting USING prions as weapons; I am suggesting that they ARE potential weapons and that inevitably somebody will use them as such. I don't want to encourage that use, even though I know that just by mentioning it somebody will think it worth trying... What I really want here is credit for giving the cops a chance to think of the Idea, "Hmmm, maybe this brain-deterioriation case is actually a homicide."
Vernon, Jul 26 2005

       So this idea is: people could feed other people prions on purpose? [V], this more properly belongs as an anno under your other linked prion idea.
bungston, Jul 26 2005

       [bungston], you have something of a point, but with a different inflection, such as [ldischler] suggested and I deliberately avoided, this does indeed qualify as an Idea. And certainly it needs to be independent if people on the outside are following a link, for the purpose of seeing THIS, and not the "Prevention" Idea.
Vernon, Jul 26 2005

       Vernon - I think you've made a very good point.

However, I'm not sure that prions would make a good murder weapon. I suspect the transmission rate is very low for non- human prion (most meat-eaters in the UK probably ate a fair dose of bovine PrPsc in their time, but fatalities so far are very very few), and the latency time is huge. So, if you lace someone's food with it, you have a very small chance of killing them in several years' time (if they don't happen to have the resistant genotype).

There's also the question of how you get hold of large enough amounts of PrPsc to raise the odds of success. You'd need infected livestock and, preferably, a half-decent kitchen- lab to enrich the prions. People are working on synthesising PrPsc (for example, from normal PrPc by chemical modification, or by genetically modifying PrP to mis-fold spontaneously), but I don't think anyone has yet demonstrated infectivity this way (unless it's quite recent).

You might get a higher chance of transmission with human PrPsc, but getting hold of this would be even tougher.

The other possible use would be as a terrorist weapon (assuming that terrorists would have more resources to produce PrPsc, would be prepared to infect only a small random percentage of a target population, and are happy to wait several years). It would probably be easier to lace food with PrPsc than with most other, more easily-detected toxins or pathogens.

However, even as a bioterrorism agent, prions are less than ideal. They lack the immediate impact of a bomb, which can kill as many people far more easily, and which elicits a much greater response than the announcement that "of the 14 vCJD deaths this year, it is estimated that between 1 and 4 could be attributed to the adulteration of foodstuffs by XYZ seven years ago."

So, it is a great piece of thinking (and, no doubt, someone somewhere will be murdered in this way, sometime), but I suspect that many, many more people will be murdered in other 'untraceable' ways instead.
Basepair, Jul 26 2005

       [Basepair], remember the PCR for making lots of DNA? In this era of genetic engineering, we could TODAY modify bacteria to churn out lots of prion protein. Then add a dab of the bad shape to it, wait for it to convert the rest, and then feed the victim the whole batch (perhaps over more than one meal). I strongly suspect that quantities of injested prions can be pretty directly related to the onset time of incapacitation. Provided you got those bacteria to make the proper variety, of course!
Vernon, Jul 27 2005

       It would be very strange to see the situation where the murderer dies before the victim.
Ling, Jul 27 2005

       [Ling], sorry, but suicide bombers do that all the time...
Vernon, Jul 27 2005

       //In this era of genetic engineering, we could TODAY modify bacteria to churn out lots of prion protein.//
We could indeed, and several people of my acquaintance do this routinely (though not for malicious purposes). However, in-vitro templating leading to large amounts of infectious material has not yet (though I may be out of date here) been demonstrated. (I'll ask my wife - her field.) But, I agree, if it's not yet possible then it soon will be. (It is probably more efficient to engineer in amino-acid subsitutions which lead to spontaneous mis-folding; but again, I don't think this has been done successfully yet to create an infectious protein).

But then you're looking at having a decent molecular biology set-up (more so than if you're just purifying PrPsc from animal remains). I'm not saying it's not possible, just that I can't imagine many scenarios where someone would choose this as a murder weapon.

If you want a simpler way to *possibly* kill someone after a long time, with little risk of being caught, just impregnate their pillow with a radioisotope (stealable from any decent lab) and hope they develop a brain tumour, then remove the pillow. No residual evidence, and the cause of death is probably common enough to avoid suspicion.

Or MRSA or some of the worse (but not implausibly uncommon) viruses.
Basepair, Jul 27 2005


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