One of the strangest things that can sicken us—a rogue misfolded protein that destroys the brain, known as a prion—is even scarier than we knew. Researchers were able to find the prions responsible for sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (sCJD), the most common prion disease in people, seeded everywhere in the eyes of 11 patients affected by it.
One kind of transplant suspected of spreading CJD is the corneal graft (a partial or full transplant of the eye’s cornea), which has led scientists to believe that the eye is a major hiding spot for prions. Many people with CJD do develop vision problems, adding support to that theory. And some earlier research has already found evidence of prions in the retina and optic nerve.
But the researchers behind this latest study wanted to search for prions in the eye via a different testing method that’s become the gold standard for detecting prions in recent years, the RT-QuIC. Unlike older methods, the RT-QuIC directly looks for the presence of misfolded prions in a test sample, using a fluorescent dye.
They tested samples of eye tissue donated by 11 people who had died from sCJD. In all 11 people, the highest level of prions was seen in the retina.
The findings, published [November 15] in mBio, confirm the need for eye doctors to be especially careful when treating people who could have CJD.
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