The demi-globule hypothesis: a thermodynamic model for prion protein template-directed misfolding

Prions are the causative agents for many brain diseases of humans and animals. In animals, the most well-known prion-related disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. The human prion diseases are Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, kuru, and fatal familial insomnia. All these diseases cause brain cell death leading to difficulty walking, dementia, muscle spasms, and seizures. They are invariably fatal, and there are currently no treatments available. The incidence of human prion diseases is roughly 1 per million people per year. Unlike most other infectious diseases that are spread by bacteria or viruses, prion diseases appear to be caused by misfolded protein molecules. Protein is made of long chains of amino acids, and how a protein folds determines its function. A misfolded prion protein can interact with a normally-folded prion protein and cause it to also misfold, setting off a chain reaction that results in widespread brain cell death. How the misfolded prion causes the normal prion to misfold remains unclear. However, a new theory called the demiglobule hypothesis proposes that the misfolded prion binds to the normal prion and causes a key part of the normal protein structure, called a beta sheet, to come apart. This ultimately results in a misfolded shape. William Guest is using a variety of theoretical and experimental techniques from physics, chemistry and biology to determine whether the demiglobule hypothesis can account for prion protein misfolding. If the results of this project support the demiglobule hypothesis, researchers will know much more about how prion conversion occurs. This knowledge could ultimately enable the development of methods to block prion conversion, thereby stopping the spread of disease.