Resolver el acertijo priónico

ZÚRICH – El brote de la enfermedad de la vaca loca en el Reino Unido, que obligó a sacrificar 3,7 millones de vacas y dañó seriamente la industria ganadera de ese país, comenzó de forma insidiosa. En 1986, una vaca en el RU desarrolló una enfermedad cerebral desconocida. El año siguiente, al someter el cerebro a pruebas de laboratorio, se descubrió que estaba carcomido por infinidad de pequeñas vacuolas, que le daban una apariencia similar a la de una esponja. Por este motivo, a la enfermedad se la bautizó con el nombre científico “encefalopatía espongiforme bovina”. En pocos meses comenzaron a aparecer casos nuevos en todo el país.

Ya se conocía una enfermedad parecida que es común en el ganado ovino, llamada tembladera (en inglés, scrapie), pero nunca se había diagnosticado algo similar en vacas. Y a lo largo de todo el siglo XX, en la población aborigen de Papúa Nueva Guinea había hecho estragos una enfermedad casi idéntica e invariablemente letal llamada kuru. Tanto el kuru como la tembladera son enfermedades infecciosas.

El kuru se transmitía a través de rituales de canibalismo que fueron comunes en Papúa Nueva Guinea hasta mediados del siglo XX. En el caso de la enfermedad del ganado que afectó al RU y otros países, los animales sanos contrajeron la enfermedad al comer alimentos preparados con carne y huesos de ganado infectado. La epizootia (epidemia animal) resultante afectó a más de 280.000 vacas y en su momento culminante (1992) llegó a provocar la muerte de unas 1.000 cabezas de ganado por semana.

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