“24”‘s prion based bioweapon – how realistic?
Posted by sanityinjection on April 8, 2009
If you’re among the many Americans who never miss an episode of the Fox TV drama “24”, you know that this season’s plot includes a bioweapon said to contain a deadly “prion” gas. I thought some readers might be interested to know more about prions and whether a prion-based bioweapon is actually a realistic possibility.
A “prion” is a simple protein which is folded up in a way that makes it unsually stable and strong. When a prion encounters normal molecules of the same type of protein, it causes them to fold up in the same way, effectively reporoducing itself by conversion. In the human body, prions can form an amyloid plaque which disrupts and destroys the central nervous system. Because of the unusual structure of the prions, this process has so far proven to be irreversible and inevitably fatal. So “24” is correct in suggesting that anyone infected with prions would almost certainly die. The best known prion disease is Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD), as well as the animal disease bovine spongiform encephelopathy (“mad cow” disease).
However, prions actually do not make a good candidate for a bioweapon – especially for terrorists – for a number of reasons. First of all, the only known method of prion transmission is through ingestion or direct introduction into the bloodstream. There is no such thing as a prion “gas” that you could inhale and become infected, the way Jack Bauer did. This also means that prions are not contagious from one person to another (which “24” got correct.)
Second, as deadly as prion disease is, it has a long incubation period. This means that it can be quite a while after infection before a person begins to show symptoms. That’s not good for a weapon where you’d prefer to see more immediate results. So even if someone were able to invent a prion gas as in the show, it probably would not be the weapon of choice for someone who wants to spread terror, given the plethora of toxins that are easier to come by. Still, you have to give the writers credit for coming up with something fact-based that sounds sufficiently exotic to viewers.