Rabbits also can suffer diseases caused by prions

Researchers from CReSA have participated in a recently published study which proves that rabbits are not resistant to prion infection, the opposite of what was believed for the last four decades. The paper has been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Prion diseases are neurodegenerative, transmissible processes caused by prion proteins, affecting human and animals and showing long incubation periods and inevitably fatal clinical evolution. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease”, is a clear example.

Since this disease had never been described before in rabbits (in a natural or experimental form), this species was considered to be resistant. This finding has relevant implications on public health since these animals can be destined for human consumption.

A common feature of prion disases is the deposition in the brain of an abnormally folded –pathogenic- isoform of the prion protein, which triggers neurodegeneration and death in the central nervous system. In this study this missfolding phenomenon has been successfully reproduced in vitro using rabbit prion protein as a substrate. Then, these “new rabbit prions” generated in a test tube have been inoculated into actual rabbits which, after a while, have developed a genuine prion disease. To definitively prove that these rabbits had a true transmissible prion disease a series of experiments have been successfully performed including: a second passage into rabbits, cell culture experiments and inoculation of transgenic mice overexpressing the rabbit cellular prion protein instead of the murine one.    

Research has been led by Dr. Joaquin Castilla (CICbioGUNE, Basque Country) with the collaboration of CReSA (UAB-IRTA, Catalonia), Moredun Research Institute (Scotland), Centro Nacional de Biotecnología (CNB, Madrid, Spain), and scientists from the Scripps Research Institute (Florida, USA) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Montana, USA).

The bioassay experiments in transgenic mice (expressing rabbit prion protein) have been conducted in CReSA’s biosafety level three facilities. The model was manufactured by Dr. Belen Pintado (CNB) within the frame of a research project coordinated from CReSA by Dr. Enric Vidal (researcher in CReSA). This project, in which Dr. Castilla also participated, was funded by the former Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación (MICINN) of the Spanish government and was focused in the study of the prion transmission barrier towards species such as the rabbits, the dogs or the horses.

CReSA’s staff involved in this project is also in charge of the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalophaties diagnosis of all ruminants included in the surveillance program in Catalonia, as committed by the Health Protection Agency of the Generalitat de Catalunya (PRIOCAT laboratory).

Dr. Enric Vidal explains: “It is highly unlikely that an epizooty of “mad rabbit disease” might occur. But we now know that this susceptibility of rabbits has to be taken into account when manufacturing rabbit feed, particularly that of rabbits which will go to human consumption. The use of animal protein from meat and bone meal of ruminants or rabbits themselves, for instance, needs to be avoided.”

A new research project application has been submitted to the MEC to study the mechanisms that determine the resistance of some species to suffer prion diseases.

This work has been recently published in: Chianini F, Fernández-Borges N, Vidal E, Gibbard L, Pintado B, de Castro J, Priola SA, Hamilton S, Eaton SL, Finlayson J, Pang Y, Steele P, Reid HW, Dagleish MP, Castilla J. Rabbits are not resistant to prion infection. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Mar 13.

Contact the principal investigator of prion diseases at CReSA:

Dr. Enric Vidal Barba
Correo electrónico: enric.vidal@cresa.uab.cat
Teléfono: +34 93 581 45 26
Fax: +34 93 581 44 90
Edifici CReSA. Campus UAB
08193 Bellaterra (Barcelona) Spain

Download this paper at the Proc Natl Acad Sci USA:


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