Now, the really strange thing about prions is that they are contagious. If a human being eats a piece of beef that is contaminated with spinal cord tissue or brain tissue from a cow suffering from mad cow disease, those consumed prions can begin to cause a cascading collapse of their brain tissue. This is a cross-species problem that is highly infectious, and it is resistant to the traditional efforts used to defend against infectious diseases. For example, you might think that cooking a piece of beef contaminated with mad cow disease would destroy the prions, but in fact, since prions are not living microorganisms or viruses, cooking does absolutely nothing to destroy them. You can cook a prion all you want, but it’s still a folded protein, and when you eat it, you may still get mad cow disease. So cooking isn’t the answer to stopping the spread of this disease.
Prions have baffled researchers for years, and there is new evidence that prions can also be spread through blood transfusions. What scientists don’t understand is how prions can be so contagious when there’s nothing living in there. How can they survive cooking and radiation and all these other treatments that would normally destroy infectious agents, and yet still manage to infect hosts regardless of their species? It’s a baffling issue. Now, with the researchers in California who have created artificial prions, we have the first potential for new research on prions that can be conducted in a laboratory. Scientists can look at these prions in a sterile environment and determine more accurately how they operate and how they cause such a rapid cascading effect in the nervous system of biological hosts.
This research, of course, could shed new light on strategies for preventing the spread of prions and also for detecting prions, especially in cattle and other animals used for food. The bottom line on this research is that it probably makes the beef industry quite nervous to have anybody actually taking a closer look at prions in the first place. The USDA has attempted to quiet any discussion of prions and pretend that there are no prions in U.S. cattle whatsoever. The U.S. beef supply is perfectly free of mad cow disease, according to the USDA, and yet, people familiar with the industry are saying that mad cow disease is rampant in U.S. herds and that there are prions in beef products on the grocery store shelves right now.
Hopefully with this new independent research on prions, we can get closer to the truth on this subject and help protect the public from the risk of mad cow disease.