The Last Laughing Death

Fifty years ago, Dr. Michael Alpers went to Papua New Guinea to investigate kuru, a horrible sickness that killed many of the native Fore people, and no one knew why. He ended up devoting his life to solving the mystery of the disease. Today, the decades of research by many scientists have added mightily to the body of biological knowledge. Kuru was not spread by bacteria, nor by a virus, nor any distinct species, but by something completely new to the scientific community: prions, indestructable self-propagating proteins that change shape and attack the body. And that was just part of the mystery. How did the Fore people become infected, and why did some contract it while others did not? Could it possibly be spread by the ritual of eating their loved ones who died?

“We made a list, Carleton and I, and there were lots of changes. The introduction of new foods, new animals, the cessation of certain activities. But the one that was biologically the most relevant was the mortuary practices, at least in my view.” A couple of years later, field surveys confirmed the disease had died out in children younger than 10 — which fitted with the kiaps effectively administering new rules of behaviour through the district. The rules were, says Alpers, “No fighting, build roads, no cannibalism, no child marriage, and plant coffee. And they did it.”

When Alpers put his data together for a presentation in Washington in 1967 “the argument for cannibalism — and I don’t use that term anymore, but it was used then — was compelling. Everything fitted. Why did women and children get the disease? Because they were the ones that carried out the practice — the men didn’t. It explained why it was dying out in young children — because the kiaps had proscribed cannibalism. You could also conclude that the disease was not being transmitted vertically from mother to child. No one born since 1960 was coming down with kuru. The penny dropped”.

The humbling lesson for scientists and doctors was that while their labours might have helped solve the puzzle, they had not halted the disease. The honour for the life-saving intervention belonged to the officers, both black and white, who administered the new laws of the land.

And the research into kuru continued, because Alpers wanted to know how the disease began, and why some who were exposed seemed to be immune. And he's just now winding down, by getting all 2,700 of his case files in order. The story of Dr. Alpers' battle against kuru is condensed into a fascinating article at The Global Mall. Link -via Metafilter

(Image courtesy of Michael Alpers)

PS: Neatorama webmaster Alex Santoso got a Ph.D. by researching prions, so he may be able to answer questions that aren't covered by the linked article.   


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I was referring to Alex Santoso, our webmaster here at Neatorama. He's not on the kuru team, but he knows a lot about prions. I amended the post to make that more clear.

I'm pretty sure several of the kuru team did get Nobel Prizes.
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While a PhD is nice, he should get a Nobel Prize. His work was ground-breaking, and provided insights into many other diseases now known to be caused by prions, including "Mad Cow Disease" and, I think, Alzheimers Disease.
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