A new study published earlier this week by researcher from the UCL has identified a specific genetic segment in a Papua New Guinea tribe which protects against the mad cow disease and other similar ailments, which might help the development of new ways to prevent people from contracting the disease and protect them from its effects.
The segment is a naturally occurring type of prion protein that shields the beneficiary against ailments such as the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and any of its variants, often known as the mad cow disease, which is contracted by eating cow meat from bovines suffering of spongiform encephalopathy and usually induces dementia into the sufferer.
Apparently, members from the remote Fore tribe have developed the protein in a most unusual way – after generations of ritualistically eating the brains of their dead. At some point during the 1950s, some of the Fore population died to a very rare disease called kuru, which is very similar to the Creutzfeld-Jakob disease but happens from eating human brains which have prions, ill-mutated decayed versions of neural proteins. Some scientists believe that similar types of plaques stand behind other neural diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Continuing the cannibalistic practice throughout the years has led to the Fore tribe members being continually exposed to kuru, and resulted in them developing a mutated form of prion plaques which actually protect against mental decay and make them basically immune against kuru. The mortuary cannibalistic practice stopped somewhere in late 1950s, and UCL researchers then analyzed the DNA of later tribesmen who had been exposed to the disease but survived, finding the mutation.
Named V127, scientists have managed to copy the mutation onto mice and have observed that it makes them resistant to both Kuru and the Cretuzfeld-Jakob disease. However, replicating the mutation might not be the only benefit which the Fore population might have granted scientists with; the researchers who participated in the study think that the V127 can be further mutated to also guard against other types of mental diseases more commonly encountered in humans.
„From the human genetic work the Unit has carried out in Papua New Guinea we were expecting the mice to show some resistance to disease.However, we were surprised that the mice were completely protected from all human prion strains” said lead researcher Dr. Emmanuel Asante in a press release.
He also pointed out that this is a clear example of Darwinian evolution in human beings, where the tribe’s genetic sequence had to adapt against the disease spurred by its own practices.
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