The prion-like spreading and accumulation of specific protein aggregates appear to be central to the pathogenesis of many human diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Accumulating evidence indicates that inoculation of tissue extracts from diseased individuals into suitable experimental animals can in many cases induce the aggregation of the disease-associated protein, as well as related pathological lesions. These findings, together with the history of the prion field, have raised the questions about whether such disease-associated protein aggregates are transmissible between humans by casual or iatrogenic routes, and, if so, do they propagate enough in the new host to cause disease? These practical considerations are important because real, and perhaps even only imagined, risks of human-to-human transmission of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s may force costly changes in clinical practice that, in turn, are likely to have unintended consequences. The prion field has taught us that a single protein, PrP, can aggregate into forms that can propagate exponentially in vitro, but range from being innocuous to deadly when injected into experimental animals in ways that depend strongly on factors such as conformational subtleties, routes of inoculation, and host responses. In assessing the hazards posed by various disease-associated, self-propagating protein aggregates, it is imperative to consider both their actual transmissibilities and the pathological consequences of their propagation, if any, in recipient hosts.
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