Cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) appear to be a reservoir for transmission of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) to humans. Although just over 100 people have developed clinical vCJD, millions have probably been exposed to the infectivity by consumption of BSE-infected beef. It is currently not known whether some of these individuals will develop disease themselves or act as asymptomatic carriers of infectivity which might infect others in the future. We have studied agent persistence and adaptation after cross-species infection using a model of mice inoculated with hamster scrapie strain 263K. Although mice inoculated with hamster scrapie do not develop clinical disease after inoculation with 10 million hamster infectious doses, hamster scrapie infectivity persists in brain and spleen for the life span of the mice. In the present study, we were surprised to find a 1-year period postinfection with hamster scrapie where there was no evidence for replication of infectivity in mouse brain. In contrast, this period of inactive persistence was followed by a period of active replication of infectivity as well as adaptation of new strains of agent capable of causing disease in mice. In most mice, neither the early persistent phase nor the later replicative phase could be detected by immunoblot assay for protease-resistant prion protein (PrP). If similar asymptomatic carriers of infection arise after exposure of humans or animals to BSE, this could markedly increase the danger of additional spread of BSE or vCJD infection by contaminated blood, surgical instruments, or meat. If such subclinical carriers were negative for protease-resistant PrP, similar to our mice, then the recently proposed screening of brain, tonsils, or other tissues of animals and humans by present methods such as immunoblotting or immunohistochemistry might be too insensitive to identify these individuals
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