One of the puzzling characteristics of prion diseases such as BSE and chronic wasting disease (CWD) is that some can naturally spread from one animal to another while others do not. Researchers at the University of Alberta, led by neurologist Valerie Sim, have found that small changes in the makeup of prions could help them adapt and spread to other animals.

“Prion diseases don’t always successfully go from one animal to another, but when they do, the process is called adaptation. And we want to figure out what triggers that process to happen, what changes happen within prions to allow the disease to spread,” says Sim. “We want to determine why one prion disease might be able to spread from one type of animal to another and why another strain of the disease can’t.”

The team is focusing on CWD in particular, as the disease has the ability to spread among herds of deer and related animals, but the mechanisms are not well understood. There also is concern the disease could adapt to infect animals outside the deer family.

Read more about the research from the University of Alberta.