Berkeley Lab researchers develop method for detecting prion-related diseases

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Previously, there was no quick and accurate way to test blood supplies for prion-related diseases, which include neurodegenerative conditions caused by misfolded proteins or prions. Now there is, however, according to a study published Sept. 12 involving Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers.

According to study co-authors and Berkeley Lab synthetic chemists Ronald Zuckermann and Michael Connolly, the study details a synthetic peptoid and assay that works together to easily isolate and bind to prions associated with prion diseases — in order to detect the illnesses.

The synthetic peptoid may also be used to detect other prion-related diseases by changing the assay it is used in, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, Zuckermann and Connolly said. They added that synthetic peptoid and associated varieties of assays are the result of a 20-year collaboration between researchers with pharmaceutical company Novartis, Connolly, Zuckermann and scientists from the University of Zurich.

“This research started when Ron and I were working for a biopharmaceutical company that is now part of the drug company Novartis,” Connolly said in an email. “The company had a focus on blood testing and there was a rising concern that prions and vCJD (Mad Cow disease) in particular could present a risk to the safety of the blood supply and a good test did not yet exist.”

According to Zuckermann and Connolly, the synthetic peptoid works with an assay or antibody in which both bind to the target prions in different sites, and a magnetic bead on the peptoid allows the peptoid-bound prion to be separated easily.

They added that the synthetic nature of the peptoid ensures it is degraded by the body, and the easy separation of the peptoid by magnetism makes it easily automated and great for widespread use to detect prion-related diseases.

“It probably wouldn’t end up as a home test but something done in blood banks or hospital clinics to diagnose disease,” Zuckermann said.

The creation of this peptoid is significant because, before its development, the main method for detecting prions in blood supplies was through animal model studies that were slow and could not test all the blood needed. Other later tests could also not be industrialized, Zuckermann and Connolly said.

The synthetic peptoid can assist in the treatment for diseases involving prions, such as Alzheimer’s, by enabling early detection, according to Zuckermann and Connolly.

“In prior publications our peptoid material and the misfolded protein assay can seek out the large aggregated proteins that are the disease agents in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, among others,” Connolly said in an email. “Early non-invasive tests for these diseases can help us potentially treat disease earlier and aid in the development of new therapies.”

Yao Huang is a research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Yhoneplus.