Prion diseases, also referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, are characterized by the deposition of an abnormal isoform of the prion protein in the brain. However, this aggregated, fibrillar, amyloid protein, termed PrPSc, is an altered conformer of a normal brain glycoprotein, PrPc. Understanding the nature of the normal cellular isoform of the prion protein is considered essential to understanding the conversion process that generates PrPSc. To this end much work has focused on elucidation of the normal function and activity of PrPc. Substantial evidence supports the notion that PrPc is a copper-binding protein. In conversion to the abnormal isoform, this Cu-binding activity is lost. Instead, there are some suggestions that the protein might bind other metals such as Mn or Zn. PrPc functions currently under investigation include the possibility that the protein is involved in signal transduction, cell adhesion, Cu transport and resistance to oxidative stress. Of these possibilities, only a role in Cu transport and its action as an antioxidant take into consideration PrPc's Cu-binding capacity. There are also more published data supporting these two functions. There is strong evidence that during the course of prion disease, there is a loss of function of the prion protein. This manifests as a change in metal balance in the brain and other organs and substantial oxidative damage throughout the brain. Thus prions and metals have become tightly linked in the quest to understand the nature of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.
- © 2004 The Biochemical Society