Scientist Jay Ingram set to lecture at Red Deer College

The host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet program and one of Canada’s best known popular scientists, Jay Ingram, will discuss the mystery behind prion diseases like mad cow disease this Friday in Red Deer.

His free lecture, The Prion Diaries: Fatal Brain Diseases in Humans and Animals, is this Friday, April 1 at the Margaret Parsons Theatre at Red Deer College at 5:30 p.m. A reception will follow at 6:30 p.m.

“Prions are an amazing story,” he said. “How most of these diseases started is a complete mystery. Research coming out now may connect them with much more common diseases like Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig (ALS) and Parkinsons’s, in that they develop and spread in the brain. This might turn out to be the most important discovery of the research. This is all speculative, but fascinating.”

A prion is an infectious agent made up of a protein in misfolded form. It was coined in 1982 by combining the words protein and infection. Prions are responsible for a variety of diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, and chronic wasting disease in animals.

They are also behind human diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. The common factor is that prion diseases are untreatable and fatal, and affect the structure of the brain and other nerve tissue in animals and people.

Prion diseases are relatively rare; for example, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease only occurs in one person per million in Canada, perhaps 35 cases annually.

One of the first prion diseases to come to light is called kuru, in Papua – New Guinea. It was caused by cannibalism, people eating other people’s brains. Ingram said at first researchers didn’t understand why people were dying and it was eventually anthropologists who noticed that fewer young people were dying as cannibalism was ending.

Ingram said that even more than 50 years after cannibalism stopped, there are still people with the disease there, which means there is a tremendously long incubation period for it.

This is a concern, he said, noting that 170 people died from eating contaminated meat thought to be related to prion diseases in Great Britain.

“There may be more. What if these diseases affecting people could incubate for 40-plus years? Research hasn’t proven a connection, but it is very important to do more research to find out.”

Alberta is on the forefront of prion research, said Ingram, because of its problems with mad cow disease. In 2005 the province set up the $35 million Prion Research Institute in Edmonton to coordinate studies into human and animal prion diseases. Chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, which seems to be spreading, is also a concern.

Ingram, who has hosted Daily Planet since the program started on Discovery Channel in 1995, is the author of several bestselling books and the recipient of numerous awards.

He has a science degree in microbiology from the University of Alberta and a master’s degree from the University of Toronto as well as four honourary degrees. He became a member of the Order of Canada in 2009 “for his contributions in making science accessible to the public.”