Daniel Carleton Gajdusek and Prion

Gajdusek was a famous physician and researcher. He was the first one to provide an elaborate medical description of the central-nervous system. His studies on neurological conditions, degenerative Parkinson and the study of ‘Kuru’, a brain disease caused by inexplicable prions, brought about drastic, positive implications in the world of medicine. In 1958, Gajdusek joined the National Institute of Health, where he conducted various experiments and researches on this particular disease till his retirement. Gajdusek was also awarded a Nobel Prize for his commendable work on the subject in 1976, which he shared with fellow researcher, Baruch S. Blumberg. Gajdusek’s work was accepted by the medical society, and he was known to defy cannibalism, which was prevalent during his time. Gajdusek worked in Iran, Australia and the United States of America, studying this infectious disease and presented various reports on the subject.
Childhood And Education
Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was born on September 9, 1923 in Yonkers, New York. He was born to a butcher called Karol Gajdusek. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek studied in various local schools and showed an interest in science from a very young age. Apart from being a voracious reader like his mother, Gajdusek also had the privilege to travel around the world. From a very young age, Gajdusek travel to the mystic lands of the Orient and even attended short courses on Egyptology, natural History, entomology, geology, botany literature and the arts. He also decided to work part-time at the Boyce Thompson Laboratories to learn more about synthesized acids when he was 16 years old.
At the age of 18, Gajdusek studied at the University of Rochester, where his subjects were mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. He graduated from here in 1943. He then obtained an M.D. from Harvard University in 1946. Following this, Gajdusek decided to study further and conducted post-doctoral research at the Columbia University and the California Institute of Technology.
Early Career
After completing his studies, Gajdusek was drafted into the military (Walter Reed Army Medical Center) as a virologist in 1950. In 1954, Gajdusek worked part time as a visiting medical attendant at the ‘Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research’ in Melbourne, Australia. Here, he began his work on the disease ‘Kuru’, which eventually fetched him the Nobel Prize.
Gajdusek’s Work On ‘Kuru’
Gajdusek was introduced to the disease Kuru by a person called Vincent Zigas, a medical officer in the district of New Guinea. It is believed that this viral disease affected the central nervous system, particularly the brain, and was prominent in the Fore Tribe region of New Guinea. Gajdusek was very interested in the subject and decided to conduct further research to see if he could come up with a solution for the problem. He connected the origins of the disease to the practice of funerary cannibalism in the Fore tribe region. Gajdusek stood against the practice of cannibalism, and received tremendous support from his other peers. Within a generation, the disease was eradicated permanently.
The disease Kuru was known as ‘laughing sickness’among the Fore tribes because, the patients who were infected with this disease exhibited excessive laughter as a syndrome. To better his research at the subject, Gajdusek lived among the Fore tribe, studied their culture, and performed autopsies on the bodies of the victims of Kuru. Finally Gajdusek discovered that the disease spread through the consumption of the brains of the deceased who suffered from Kuru, which happened to be a common practice in this region. Hence, Gajdusek was successfully able to demonstrate the infectious spread of a certain viral disease in humans in the world. After establishing that the disease was deadly, Gajdusek wanted to probe further to identify the biological nature of the infection. Subsequently, he noticed a similarity between ‘scrapie’ – an inexplicable disease found in goats and sheep, and the Kuru disease. Along with the help of Stanley Prusiner, he concluded that the diseases’ were caused by rogue proteins known as ‘prions’.
Later Stages
All of Gajdusek’s medical findings about ‘Kuru’ were generally accepted by the medical community worldwide. However, there were countless disputes on whether cannibalism still existed when he resided with the Fore tribe, researching about the disease. Many a time, Gajdusek revealed that he never actually witnessed Cannibalism himself, and that he would never allow such a thing even if he came across such an act.

By April 1957 he had 28 cases and 13 deaths. By June he had 200 deaths; most were women and children. Kuru sufferers shrieked, stumbled, jerked and twitched, were belligerent and prone to mirth. Gajdusek wanted to know if the disease was genetic, infectious, environmental or psychosomatic. He sent brains to be analysed in Australia and at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He investigated what the Fore ate, drank or touched. He tried ad hoc treatments: vitamins, steroids, antibiotics. Nothing worked.

Meanwhile, the Americans noted that the brains were similar to those of CJD patients. Burnet proposed sending out a multidisciplinary team. Gajdusek replied that he was that team. Around this time he visited the Anga. They did not have kuru but did have an interesting form of welcome: the youths persistently offered to fellate him and regarded it as great fun.

After nine months, Gajdusek returned to NIH. There, an American scientist, William Hadlow, wrote saying how similar the brains looked to brains of sheep infected with scrapie. Gajdusek inoculated chimps with extracts of Fore brains, knowing it would be a long time incubating, and went back to the hospital he had founded for the Fore.

According to Arens and Gajdusek, the conditions in the Fore region began to improve after the arrival of the Europeans in 1961. Towards the end of his life, Gajdusek stated that cannibalism was not the only cause of the Kuru disease. His last explanation was that women retained scraps of human brain under their nails as a result of cannibalism, and when they brushed or combed their hair or the scalps of their children, the disease would spread by touch. After his dedicated research and study in the field of Kuru, Gajdusek became the chief head of the laboratories for neurological and viral research at the National Institute of Health in 1958 and was later instated to the National Academy of Sciences in 1974 for microbial biology.

Alzheimer’s Disease: Deadly Infectious Cause Known and Hidden – Prions


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