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NIH asks Creighton researcher to probe puzzle of infectious prions

Oct 3, 2023
2 min Read
Eugene Curtin
Jason Bartz Creighton interior

While the resistance of some pathogens to conventional drug treatments is a major concern for medical researchers, Creighton’s Jason Bartz, PhD, is facing a twist. 

Bartz, a professor of medical microbiology and immunology, has been given a $2.7 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to research infectious prions. Prions, which, like bacteria and viruses are infectious agents, are especially troubling because they are composed solely of protein, lacking the genetic material that offers an avenue of attack against bacteria and viruses. 

“These infectious proteins cause fatal neurodegenerative diseases that affect a wide variety of animals including humans,” Bartz says. “One of the many challenges in fighting prion diseases is that it is unknown how a protein-only infectious agent causes disease.”  

Like the better known bacterial and viral pathogens, prions can be transmitted between species and can develop resistance to drug treatments. How this resistance develops is unknown, although Bartz says current thinking suggests that subtle differences in the shape of the prions may play a role. 

Our findings will provide a better understanding of how protein-only infectious agents can rapidly evolve.
— Jason Bartz, PhD

That thinking has been formed largely by research undertaken at Creighton by Bartz and his undergraduate and graduate students, who provided the first evidence that prions may adjust their shape in response to chemical intervention.  

“This work was recently published in PloS Pathogens (a peer-reviewed, open access medical journal) and is the basis of the $2.7 million National Institutes of Health grant,” Bartz says. “Specifically, we are tasked with examining the consequences of these prion folding variants — referred to as substrains — on how prions rapidly adapt to a new host species.   

“Our findings will provide a better understanding of how protein-only infectious agents can rapidly evolve. This work will also be important for assessing if prion diseases like chronic wasting disease of cervids (deer, moose, elk) can transmit to other species, including humans.”