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Repeated challenge with prion disease: The risk of infection and impact on incubation period

National Academy of Sciences
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  • Biological Sciences
  • Medicine


Natural exposure to prion disease is likely to occur throughout successive challenges, yet most experiments focus on single large doses of infectious material. We analyze the results from an experiment in which rodents were exposed to multiple doses of feed contaminated with the scrapie agent. We formally define hypotheses for how the doses combine in terms of statistical models. The competing hypotheses are that only the total dose of infectivity is important (cumulative model), doses act independently, or a general alternative that interaction between successive doses occurs (to raise or lower the risk of infection). We provide sample size calculations to distinguish these hypotheses. In the experiment, a fixed total dose has a significantly reduced probability of causing infection if the material is presented as multiple challenges, and as the time between challenges lengthens. Incubation periods are shorter and less variable if all material is consumed on one occasion. We show that the probability of infection is inconsistent with the hypothesis that each dose acts as a cumulative or independent challenge. The incubation periods are inconsistent with the independence hypothesis. Thus, although a trend exists for the risk of infection with prion disease to increase with repeated doses, it does so to a lesser degree than is expected if challenges combine independently or in a cumulative manner.

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