In late 2010 discussions were initiated for strategic endeavor to establish a unique and enduring prion research focus with the potential and capacity for national/international recognition. In late 2011, I moved from the University of Kentucky Medical Center to direct this newly formed Prion Research Center (PRC). In assembling the PRC, we have selected members with diverse expertise and background including protein chemistry, molecular biology, immunology, infectious diseases, mammalian and yeast cell biology, genetics, mouse transgenesis, neurodegeneration, epidemiology, and public and animal health. Such a multidisciplinary approach is required for studies of this unique and emerging biological paradigm. The unique resources, expertise, and synergism among its members place the PRC in an ideal position to carry out studies on prions and prion disease.
The PRC has also been designated as a Program of Research and Scholarship Excellence (PRSE) at CSU. An objective of the PRC-PRSE is to embrace researchers at CSU and surrounding institutions with the common goal of addressing the etiologies and pathobiology of prion diseases. CWD of deer and elk is of particular concern, and the PRP-PRSE is both geographically and scientifically positioned to investigate the transmission and prevention of this disease. Participants of the PRSE include researchers working at CSU; the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (Department of Neurology); the USDA National Wildlife Research Laboratory; the Colorado Division of Wildlife; the University of Wyoming, and; the National Park Service. Additional PRC-PRSE objectives include increased collaborative opportunities with other PRC members; increased recruiting opportunities for high quality students, postdoctoral fellows, scientists and technicians; increased visibility for the important, collective contributions of PRC members to the prion research community; and integration among the PRC and other North American prion researchers, providing opportunities to shape and direct prion research at the regional, national and international levels.
Some Research Themes of the PRC
Prion disease epidemics are frequent, and, since they are invariably fatal and incurable, of significant concern for animal and human health. The parameters controlling intra- and inter-species prion transmission are only partially understood, and this question remains an important focus of research at the PRC. The influence of prion strain properties on agent host range is exemplified by the spread of prions causing bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle to humans as variant Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (vCJD). While the zoonotic potential of cervid prion strains, newly-described by PRC researchers is currently unclear, our identification of CWD prions in deer and elk tissues consumed by humans, as well as the continued emergence of novel BSE and scrapie strains raise additional public health concerns.
The existence of heritable strain properties in the absence of an agent-specific nucleic acid, initially presented a conundrum until evidence that these biological characteristics were enciphered by different PrPSc conformations. These are studies that were spearheaded by investigators now working at the PRC.
The participation of prions in diverse biological settings ranging from translation termination in yeast, memory in Aplasia, and antiviral innate immune responses have demonstrated the generality of protein-mediated information transfer. PRC investigators study prions in the context of mammalian disorders, as well as genetically tractable yeast systems. Increasing evidence also links the prion mechanism to proteins involved in the pathogenesis of other common neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, which are also areas of research study among investigators of the PRC.
A goal of the PRC-PRSE is to embrace researchers at CSU and surrounding institutions with the common goal of addressing the etiologies and pathobiology of prion diseases. Chronic wasting disease of deer and elk is of particular concern since it is of local importance, and the PRP-PRSE is both geographically and scientifically positioned to investigate the transmission and prevention of this disease. Participants of the PRSE include MIP researchers working at CSU; the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center (Department of Neurology); the USDA National Wildlife Research Laboratory; the Colorado Division of Wildlife; the University of Wyoming, and; the National Park Service. The PRSE will provide modest funding to aid in establishing and carrying out the initial goals of the Center, and help brand our Program for prospective collaborators, funding agencies and potential trainees.
From 2007 – 2011, the PRC core faculty were awarded 78 grants with over $24 million in external funding. Funding agencies include NIH, USDA, NSF, American Heart Association, Morris Animal Foundation, and the National Park Service. In addition, the affiliate faculty of the PRSE have been awarded 31 grants, with over $21 million in external funding. Research pertaining to the biochemistry, genetics and pathogenesis of prions is conducted in the laboratories of the aforementioned principal investigators, mainly in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, CSU. This group of investigators is organized as the PRC to facilitate collaborations and the sharing of resources. Combined, the PRC houses approximately 70 scientists, research associates, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students. The Core faulty occupy laboratories on the second, and third floors of the Pathology Building on CSU’s main campus.
As you will see, the PRC is a leader in studies of prions and prion diseases, which remains one of the most exciting and dynamic frontiers of biology.
Director, Prion Research Center (PRC) (CIOSU)
Director, PRC Program for Research and Scholarly Excellence (PRC-PRSE)