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Nobel laureate to give public talk on brain injuries

10.4.2012

By Pat Bailey

Photo: Nobel Laureate Stanley Prusiner

Stanley Prusiner

Nobel Laureate Stanley Prusiner is due at UC Davis next week to give a public talk on “Brain Injuries: Soldiers, Football Players and Alzheimer’s Patients."

The neurologist, a professor at UC San Francisco, discovered a class of infectious proteins that cause mad cow disease and related neurodegenerative ailments in animals and people.

His talk is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12, in Freeborn Hall. Admission is free.

Earlier in the day, in a more technical presentation, he is scheduled to address veterinary students on “The Molecular Biology of Mammalian Prions.” The lecture is set to begin at noon in 1020 Valley Hall.

The School of Veterinary Medicine is organizing Prusiner's visit, which is sponsored by the Robert Dyar Labrador Memorial Lectureship in Epidemiology.

Dyar, a physician who served for 30 years as chief of the Preventive Medicine and Research divisions in the California Department of Public Health, endowed the lectureship program to recognize UC Davis’ pioneer achievements in the field of veterinary epidemiology and to extend his gratitude to veterinarians for the medical care provided to his companion Labrador retrievers. Dyar died in 1992 at the age of 83.

Prusiner, director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at UCSF, received the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the disease-causing proteins that he named prions.

His research demonstrated that prions are formed and become infectious when a normal, benign cellular protein acquires an altered shape — a theory that he recalls initially unleashed a “torrent of criticism” in the scientific community. At that time, most scientists thought that proteins could have only one biologically active form.

Eventually, evidence for prions accumulated and the concept of their infectious abilities gained wide acceptance among scientists. During the past 20 years, abnormalities in protein processing have also been found to be the cause of more common neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Today, his research focuses on determining the atomic structure of prions, deciphering how they replicate and defining how biological properties are encoded in prion strains. He also is working to develop therapeutic drugs that slow the decline in patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and prion diseases, as well as frontotemporal dementia.

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