Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or prion diseases, are fatal degenerative disorders of the central nervous system that affect humans and animals. Prions are nonconventional infectious agents whose replication depends on the host prion protein (PrP). Transmission of prions to cultured cells has proved to be a particularly difficult task, and with a few exceptions, their experimental propagation relies on inoculation to laboratory animals. Here, we report on the development of a permanent cell line supporting propagation of natural sheep scrapie. This model was obtained by stable expression of a tetracycline-regulatable ovine PrP gene in a rabbit epithelial cell line. After exposure to scrapie agent, cultures were repeatedly found to accumulate high levels of abnormal PrP (PrPres). Cell extracts induced a scrapie-like disease in transgenic mice overexpressing ovine PrP. These cultures remained healthy and stably infected upon subpassaging. Such data show that (i) cultivated cells from a nonneuronal origin can efficiently replicate prions; and (ii) species barrier can be crossed ex vivo through the expression of a relevant PrP gene. This approach led to the ex vivo propagation of a natural transmissible spongiform encephalopathy agent (i.e., without previous experimental adaptation to rodents) and might be applied to human or bovine prions
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