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Genetic studies in relation to kuru: an overview.

Kuru is a subacute neurodegenerative disease presenting with limb ataxia, dysarthria, and a shivering tremor. The disease progress to complete motor and mental incapacity and death within 6 to 24 months. Neuropathologically, a typical pattern of neuronal loss, astrocytic and microglial proliferation, characteristic "kuru-type" amyloid plaques, and PrP deposits in the cerebral cortex and cerebellum are observed. Kuru is the prototype of a group of human transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), or "prion" diseases, that include hereditary, sporadic and infectious forms. The latest member of this group, the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), linked to transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to humans, shows features similar to kuru. Kuru has emerged at the beginning of the 1900s in a small indigenous population of New-Guinean Eastern Highlands, reached epidemic proportions in the mid-1950s and disappeared progressively in the latter half of the century to complete absence at the end of the 1990s. Early studies made infection, the first etiologic assumption, seem unlikely and led to a hypothesis that kuru might be a genetically determined or genetically mediated illness. After transmissibility of kuru had been discovered and all major epidemiologic phenomena adequately explained by the spread of an infectious agent with long incubation period through the practice of cannibalism, the pattern of occurrence still continued to suggest a role for genetic predisposition. Recent studies indicate that individuals homozygous for Methionine at a polymorphic position 129 of the prion protein were preferentially affected during the kuru epidemic. The carriers of the alternative 129Met/Val and 129Val/Val genotypes had a longer incubation period and thus developed disease at a later age and at a later stage of the epidemic. Observations made during the kuru epidemic are helpful in the understanding of the current vCJD outbreak, and vice versa clinical and experimental data accumulated in studies of other TSE disorders contribute to better understanding of the documented kuru phenomena.

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