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Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease: risk of transmission by blood and blood products


James W Ironside, National Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease Surveillance Unit, Division of Pathology, School of Molecular and Clinical Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, UK.


Summary.  Variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) is a novel acquired human prion disease apparently resulting from exposure to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) agent. Variant CJD differs from other human prion diseases in that the disease-associated form of the prion protein and infectivity are readily detectable in lymphoid tissues throughout the body. Lymphoid tissues and lymphocytes are implicated in the peripheral pathogenesis of prion diseases (where infectivity may be detected during the preclinical phase of the illness), giving rise to concerns that blood and blood products may also contain infectious particles, representing a possible source of iatrogenic spread of variant CJD. This concern has been reinforced following the experimental transmission of BSE in a sheep model by transfusion of blood and buffy coat from animals in the preclinical phase of the illness, and the recent identification of a UK case of variant CJD in a patient who had received packed red blood cells that had been donated by an individual who subsequently died from variant CJD. Studies in animal models suggest that most prion infectivity in blood may be cell-associated, with lower levels in the plasma, and there is evidence to suggest that any infectivity present may be reduced during the process of plasma fractionation. However, the possibility that plasma or blood products could transmit the disease cannot be excluded. Further studies are required to develop more sensitive means to detect disease-associated prion protein in blood; such techniques could be employed for screening purposes to reduce exposure to contaminated products and to assist with risk management in potentially exposed individuals.