Exposure and response of human non-neuronal cells to prions in vitro
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Despite intensive research, the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in human cellular susceptibility to prion infection remain poorly defined, in part due to the continuing lack of cultured human cells that are susceptible to infection with human prions. Such culture models would present distinct advantages including speed and expense compared with animal models, and would provide systems in which to investigate the interaction between PrPC and PrPSc, the basis of cellular susceptibility, the nature of the species barrier and the mechanism of prion propagation in situ. This study sought to examine whether non-neuronal cells might provide opportunities to establish human cell lines replicating human prions. A human follicular dendritic cell-like cell line (termed HK) was obtained, further characterised and then tested for its ability to support human prion replication. The mechanisms of internalisation, intracellular trafficking and the eventual fate of exogenous PrPSc taken up by these cells were also examined. This thesis similarly examined the cellular response of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) to acute exposure to human and animal prions. PrPC was found to be abundantly expressed by HK cells and HK cell extracts were found to support conversion to PrPSc in a cell-free conversion assay. However, HK cells exposed to infectious brain homogenates failed to accumulate PrPSc or become infected in vitro. Exposed HK and hESC did display a readily detectable, time dependent uptake of PrPSc from medium spiked with prion-infected brain homogenates that was independent of the species, disease phenotype and PRNP codon 129 genotype of the human source and the recipient cells. The exposed cells showed intensely labelled intracellular accumulations of PrPSc with coarse granular morphology, largely in the juxtanuclear region of cytoplasm. However, when the brain-spiked medium was withdrawn and cells were given control medium, the intensity and extent of PrPSc immunostaining rapidly diminished. Co-localisation studies implicated caveolae-mediated endocytic uptake of exogenous PrPSc, apparently preceding uptake via clathrin coated pits in HK cells. Evidence suggesting that the endosomal recycling compartment and lysosomes are involved in intracellular trafficking and degradation of exogenous PrPSc was also found. Understanding the cell biology of these processes may help to explain why the majority of cultured cells are refractory to prion infection in vitro. Internalization of misfolded PrP and its subsequent degradation in the lysosomal compartment might function as a self-protective cellular mechanism, serving to eliminate non-native, presumably dysfunctional and potentially dangerous PrP conformers, whether generated endogenously or acquired through exposure to exogenous prion infectivity.