Thursday, April 12, 2007

Prion for your thoughts

DK pops over with the stunning news about rogue proteins and how they might not be all they're cracked up to be. Read on, if you dare:

Whilst Fabian Tassano rails—quite correctly—against the Marxist bias in many (if not all) universities, and politicians use the climate change orthodoxy to justify yet more tax rises, it is perhaps a salutory time to emphasise the danger in dogma.

One of very first essays that your humble Devil wrote for his—prematurely aborted—microbiology degree was on the subject of BSE and, of course, CJD.
Both of these are in a group of diseases, that also includes
scrapie, known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs).

It was research into these TSEs that threw up the concept of the prion, a protein that effectively acted as an infectious agent, for these conditions, in a way that no one had previously thought possible.

For various reasons, these prions acted utterly unlike any other protein described: they were, for instance, able to infect cross-species (e.g. from cow to human) as well as survive unprecedented rigours of heat and intestinal digestion whilst retaining both their form and virulence.

At the time that I wrote the essay, I considered prions to be a deeply dubious idea and I remained convinced that they were only a symptom of the disease. My chemical and biological learning—including my Biology A Level experimental project, which involved the investigation (and poisoning with heavy metals, etc.) of various proteins—led me to conclude that the prion concept was absolute bollocks and that there must, therefore, be another transmissive agent. Unfortunately, my microbiology tutor disagreed and refused to mark the piece (although she did acknowledge that it was written well, if in a somewhat flippant style).

Flicking through an old edition of New Scientist—the February 17 2007 issue—I see that, finally, some people in the scientific community are coming around to my way of thinking.
VIRUSES, not prions, may be at the root of diseases such as scrapie, BSE and vCJD.The widely accepted theory of what causes these so-called "transmissible spongiform encephalopathies" (TSEs), such as mad cow disease, is that deformed proteins called prions corrupt other brain proteins, eventually clogging and destroying brain cells. But this theory has never been proved completely.
Or, if we are being truthful, at all; however, that hasn't stopped a great many scientists making Doomsday proclamations with an ever-increasing desperation in order to secure vast amounts of public money.
Laura Manuelidis of Yale University has insisted for years that virus-like particles observed in TSE-infected brains may be the culprits, but since such brains are degenerating, the particles have been dismissed as general debris.

However, when Manuelidis studied the particles in cultures of neural cells infected with two particular strains of scrapie and CJD, she found they contained particles that had clustered in regular arrays, as viruses do in cells - and no apparent prions (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 104, p 1965). Cells with more particles were better at infecting other cell cultures, while boosting prions did not appear to increase their infectiousness or particle numbers.
Agents that disrupt viruses stopped the cells infecting other cultures.
Generally speaking, if it looks like a virus, acts like a virus and quacks infects like a virus, it's a virus.

Needless to say, those with a vested interest really are not happy with this idea at all.

However, leading prion researcher Adriano Aguzzi of the University Hospital of Zurich in Switzerland says Manuelidis won't prove her case without isolating the proposed virus and showing it causes TSE. She should also test other strains for these particles and see if her infected cultures cause TSE in animals, he says.

Despite Aguzzi's challenge, what Manuelidis has found tallies nicely, not only with my own opinion but also with observed practice: I have no doubt that she will obtain the proof that is needed. For, whilst we should beware of basing ideas merely on what we already know, in science—as in almost every other field of endeavour—we should hold true to the principle of Occam's Razor.

So, what is the least complex interpretation—that the transmissive agent is of a type that we already know, or that we should attempt to explain a hitherto unthought-of (and, indeed, observation-defying) group of complex structures? If we combine Occam's Razor with what we know of all other proteins, the prion-as-pathogen theory has never been credible to anyone with a wider knowledge of proteins or of infective agents.

Scandalously—and despite the consistent non-fulfillment of the dire death toll predictions, and the lack of success in replicating the infection path—this has not stopped the prion theory becoming the "concensus" amongst politicians and scientists either too ignorant to know or too greedy to care.

Now that we have found evidence for a tenable, and logical, hypothesis for transmission, it is my hope that we may see some sensible theories brought to light in the TSE debate.

One can only hope that something similar happens to the climate change "concensus"—a dogma which has far more potential for damage to both our prosperity and our personal liberty—before this stupidity causes the sort of death toll that has utterly failed to materialise under the prion orthodoxy.

(For more of my writings on this subject, including a fair amount of very strong language, see here, here and here.)

(Cross-posted later on today at The Devil's Kitchen.)


james higham said...

So it's the damned viruses after all, DK. And here we were yesterday railing against the prion and filling the coffers of the cynical plutocracy.

Roger Thornhill said...

Unfortunately, my microbiology tutor disagreed and refused to mark the piece

I find that utterly disgraceful. Even in maths you get marks for the "workings" even if the final answer is wrong - the point was HOW you arrived at your answer. If your method was sound, rational and scientific, then...oh, bollocks, we are talking about an example of quasi-religion here. A canon. A dogma.

FlyingRodent said...

All these quasi-religions and dogmas, it's hard to know what to believe these days.

I know, let's have a free-market in dogmatism, and let the most accurate rise to the top naturally.

This will assuredly improve the quality of everybody's quasi-religions, since a rising tide raises all boats.

Some might object that such a scheme might produce unexpected and unpleasant results, but any such phenomena would surely prove the need for further deregulation.

Wolfie said...

It was exactly this type of narrow-minded foolery that forced me to turn my back on my life-time love of science to whore my cerebral cortex to the highest bidder in Investment Banking.

Now-a-days I get into raging arguments with talentless, colourless, odourless economics wonks (usually Jewish) of a neo-liberal bent that are churned out of snivelling brain-washing institutions like Yale and Harvard who are quite unable to think for themselves in any shape or form. All they can do is quote the research papers of other talentless, colourless, odourless economics professors (usually Jewish) with stunning accuracy without even the slightest realization that the economic theory that they are spouting doesn't even stand up to the scrutiny of basic common sense.

Christ, we're doomed.

Anonymous said...

Such statements above, are the reasons why we shall never have a panacea for any virulent diease. I belive it is disrespectful to the science community, to only attempt to overthrow their research. For those, who are finding oposite views and claims on Prions, should attempt to shut their mouths.
Throughout History, we have been able to depict viruses. We have learned about them, made cures, and even ammended. So it is pointless to say that "Prions" should be considered "viruses". Their nature is unique, and not endemic to any particular culture. Their exists should be alarming, to both humans AND politicians (< not a mistake). I would also like to point out that you seem to frown upon those claims not suported by scientific evidence. However, the counter views you offered and many others, had the same vauge ideas that you so abhor..

james higham said...

Anonymous - pity you chose to hide behind the 'anonymous'. I shall pass this on to DK.