Lab Canada

3-D look at prions may help find cure to brain diseases

Edmonton, AB – Researchers at the University of Alberta have collaborated to create antibodies for a leading prion study in Switzerland and created a 3-D image showing where those antibodies bind to the prion molecule. That will help design the next steps to a cure for diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

Professor Michael James of the Department of Biochemistry, professor Nat Kav of the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science and their labs collaborated to produce mini-antibodies and antibody fragments, using data provided by principal researchers in Switzerland.

The fragments were then used by the lead researchers at the Institute of Neuropathology in Zurich to study interactions between the antibodies and the prion protein and how it results in cell death.

The researchers say their work will help to open the door to designing a molecule that would block prion infection.

“We hope to design a chemical compound that would bind to some part of the prion molecule to prevent the conversion of the normal form of the protein to the disease-causing form,” said James.

Prion protein infections, caused by structural misfolding within the prion protein, lead to fatal neurodegenerative disorders such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans, BSE in cattle and Chronic Wasting Disease in deer.

Using recombinant DNA technology, Kav and his lab produced the mini-antibodies and antibody fragments that were then used by James and ultimately studied biologically in the Zurich lab. Using X-ray crystallography, James’s lab was able to identify the three-dimensional structure of where antibodies and antibody fragments bind to the prion molecule, pinpointing regions that are susceptible to changing to a diseased state.

The discovery now makes it possible to begin designing ways to prevent prion disease, in everything from developing treatment for human victims to creating a preventative additive for livestock feed.

The University of Alberta portion of the research was supported by the Alberta Prion Research Institute and PrioNet Canada. The research was published online in Nature on July 31 2013 (URL:

Reported by Bev Betkowski, University of Alberta