Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

“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.


11 Responses to ““24”‘s prion based bioweapon – how realistic?”

  1. tubby said

    Good points! I wonder though if the “prion gas” they refer to could eventually be a product of efforts in nanotechnology or genetic engineering. For example, a UNC research team created a way to synthesize proteins into nanoparticles. I realize creating a gas from these nanoparticles presents another challenge.

    Also, how hard it would be for scientists to genetically engineer a virus or bacterion containing prion-creating genes? Probably not viable any time in the near future, but makes you wonder.

  2. sanityinjection said

    On a related note, Jack Bauer’s exhibited symptoms of tremors, jerky movements and loss of balance are consistent with CJD or another prion disease. In real life, though, they would almost certainly take much longer to present, and would be accompanied by dementia and mental degeneration that would make Bauer totally useless for national security or any other function.

  3. Christina said

    In theory, a prion might be able to be genetically engineered (once more is known about prions) so that it can reach the brain and central nervous system faster than the weeks it normally takes. Also, suppose it is not a “gas”, but a “mist”??? It could be plausible the prion protein could be in a mist of some sort, but it would most likely not have a wide range of effectiveness and would have to be ingested, not inhaled. But I absolutely love “24” and will not stop watching over a few exaggerations. 🙂

  4. watchdogonscience said

    If a prion-protein can be functionally expressed on a recombinant vector then the biowar agent scenerio may very well be possible. Prion genes, no doubt can be cloned into a virus particle…but will it produce a functional prion is another question which I am not sure.

    But what I do know is that we can now easily weaponize virus particles to our liking; we can design them to make them infect where naturally they would not, by any route. For example, in research laboratories we can and have designed the HIV virus to be capable of infecting through one’s eyes, ingestion or by inhalation. So if it is possible to clone the prion gene into a virus and its expression leads to a functional prion, then the release of this agent by gas (air) and exposure through mucosal infection could be possible.

    Here is how it would work. The virus, a nonreplicating form which is not contagious but has broad tropism of infection, infects the lungs, mouth and eyes of our hero Jack Bauer through gaseous exposure. Via the lungs, optic nerve and trigeminal nerve, the virus accesses the blood and the nervous system. The virus integrates into the genome of the nervous system cells and begins expression, pumping out loads of the prion protein. The expressed prion protein then causes normal proteins to fold inappropriately which then begins the chain of neurological insult and neuron death. And poor Jack Bauer our hero begins to shake and loose memory and becomes a MAD HATTER. ARRRRRRHHHHHHHHHHH….

    Poor Jack. Someone save him. Will it be adult embryonic stem cells through his daughter’s bone marrow? Dear me. More stem cell hype. That is one scenario that is rather far-fetched, to say the least.

    I can’t wait to find out how he gets out of this one.

  5. sanityinjection said

    Thanks, this is interesting stuff. I’d still argue though that the long incubation period before symptoms occur would make for an unsatisfying bioweapon. There are only two purposes for a weapon. One is to defend yourself, and a prion bioweapon is useless for that because the enemy would plenty of time to kill you multiple times over before they developed any symptoms. The other is to compel someone to do your will – and again, “Do as I say or you’ll be dead in five years” just isn’t very compelling.

    I also thought the “experimental stem cell treatment” was far-fetched.

  6. You can read more here:

  7. in theory said

    As a weapon for immediate destructions, prions are no good, of course. As a weapon for long-term mass destruction, prions may be of certain values. Once it enters the food chain, it will be nearly impossible to eradicate. A few well-planned dousing will result in the contamination of the entire livestock for decades to come. The stable, biodegradation-resistant structure of prions will also mean that at large quantity, the protein can render a large area of otherwise fertile land unsuitable for farming (for fear of prions entering the food chain through livestock).

    Such a weapon may well be effective against a stronghold of entrenched enemies, should effective tactic can also be enacted concurrently to box them in, denying them materials and personnel flows in and out of the cordoned-off area (to minimize the leak of prions into non-affected area). Some patience will be necessary for the weapon to take effect, and its administration must be done under greatest possible secrecy for it to be effective.

  8. Camilla1144 said

    I thought PrP were normal protein that could then become PrP* (the Prion with abnormal conformation)!

  9. Jens said

    you are absolutely correct, PrP is a very common human protein in the neurological system, which is why PrP* is so dangerous. Basically your brain just shuts down, bit by bit. A horrible way to go, for sure.

  10. Domenico said

    Unless the gas in question was dubbed “prion gas” not because it was made out of or contained prions but because it triggered the formation of prions in the body of those inhaling it. Which doesn’t sound that far fetched to me.
    Also,apparently some forms of prions diseases can be acquired by eating human meat containing the prion. (makes me think of zombies) and perhaps it is enough for it to be in a particle of food stuck between the teeth of someone biting you to get infected…
    The incubation period can be shortened by various means. Whoever wrote this article took as example of an engineered agent their natural predecessors… which is pretty stupid since it would obviously be modified to suit the needs of who intends to use it as a weapon of mass destruction and the results he wants to achieve. It’s like comparing a bird to a stealth bomber.

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