Unraveling Mad Cow Disease

In the Rockies, Researchers Chip Away at Enigmatic Illness

Top, Bruce Chesebro and Sue Priola. Bottom, left to right,  Rick Race, Byron Caughey.

Rocky Mountain lab scientists: Top, Bruce Chesebro and Sue Priola. Bottom (left to right): Rick Race and Byron Caughey. Richard Harris, NPR News/NIH hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris, NPR News/NIH
The National Institutes of Health's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.

The National Institutes of Health's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont. Richard Harris, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Richard Harris, NPR News

Mad cow disease and its human counterpart are among the most perplexing diseases on the planet. Research suggests that the agent that spreads the infection is not a conventional germ, like a virus. Instead, these diseases seem to be caused by an infectious protein, called a prion. In 1997, the Nobel Prize committee honored a scientist for developing this theory. But researchers at one top lab still aren't convinced.

The Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the National Institutes of Health, overlook Montana's postcard-perfect Bitteroot River in Hamilton. For more than half a century, researchers there have unraveled the biology of one disease after another, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever and typhus. But for more than 40 years now, they have been stymied by a group of brain-wasting diseases that includes mad cow disease, sheep scrapie, chronic wasting disease in deer, and variant CJD in humans.

NPR's Richard Harris traveled to the labs to talk with four scientists there — Bruce Chesebro, Sue Priola, Rick Race and Byron Caughey — who find themselves in a perpetual, but collegial, argument about what's really behind these diseases.

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