MONDAY, Jan. 30, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The same protein that causes mad cow disease and its human equivalent also plays an important role in helping certain kinds of adult stem cells maintain themselves, a new study finds.
"For years, we've wondered why evolution has preserved this protein, what positive role it could possibly be playing. With these findings, we have our first answer," study co-author Susan Lindquist of the Whitehead Institute, of Cambridge, Mass., said in a prepared statement.
PrP (prion protein) can be found throughout healthy human bodies. It's especially abundant in the brain. It's common in many kinds of mammals, but only rarely does it cause disease.
In research with mice, the Whitehead researchers found that PrP is critical to the ability of blood-generating stem cells to generate new cells. They published the finding in this week's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Clearly, PrP is important for maintaining stem cells. We're not sure yet how it does this, but the correlation is obvious," study co-author Harvey Lodish said in a prepared statement.
"PrP is a real black box," Lindquist noted. "This is the first clear indication we have of a beneficial role for it in a living animal. Now we need to discover its molecular mechanism."
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about prion diseases.