From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine

Summer 2016

The research of Mirko Beljanski, the “father of environmental medicine,” is getting the respect it deserves, 18 years after his death.

By Janet Rae-Dupree

When French officials order troops from the National Gendarmerie Intervention Group, or GIGN, to apprehend a criminal suspect, it’s a certainty that a truly nasty character is about to be taken down. These elite anti-terrorist soldiers—brought together for special forces training following the Munich Olympics massacre in 1974—have freed hostages from hijacked airliners and remote island caves, guarded Olympians and French government leaders, quelled prison riots and arrested France’s most wanted criminals for more than four decades.

So when several dozen heavily armed GIGN soldiers blocked all roads into the small hamlet of Saint-Prim, in the country’s Rhône-Alpes region, at sunrise on October 9, 1996, villagers knew to keep their distance.

Stealthily, the troops surrounded a former winery estate on the Rhône River where scientists had established a nonprofit laboratory called the Center of Scientific Innovation, Research and Information (CIRIS) to seek alternative cancer and AIDS treatments. Rumors had circulated that the late French president François Mitterand was using some of the lab’s products to fight his prostate cancer before it had ultimately killed him a few months earlier. Other than that, Saint-Prim’s 800 or so residents knew little about what went on at CIRIS.

Abruptly, soldiers broke down the main building’s front door, ordering its sleeping occupants from their beds and handcuffing their primary target—73-year-old Yugoslavia-born biochemist Mirko Beljanski, “the father of environmental medicine.”

It took nearly 12 hours to load the lab’s equipment, voluminous files, research notes and experimental materials into a caravan of trucks. During that time, teams of security forces conducted similar raids and confiscations at the lab’s suppliers elsewhere in France and at Beljanski’s Paris apartment, where his wife of 45 years, fellow researcher Monique Lucas Beljanski, also was arrested.

Two years after the laden trucks rolled out of Saint-Prim—months after government agents had rounded up and destroyed CIRIS’s plant extracts and dietary supplements—Mirko Beljanski died of acute myeloid leukemia. French news media didn’t cover the raid. There were no press releases about the Beljanskis’ arrest. No criminal trial ever took place. A European Union court later found he was denied due process and the government was ordered to cover his legal fees.

So why were the Beljanskis arrested? And how did Mirko Beljanski’s lifelong research path come to open new avenues for treating cancer and, possibly, preventing its development in the first place? Over the course of his four decades of research, Bel-janski came to be viewed as a scientific pariah by colleagues at the same time his discoveries were credited with curing cases of pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer and even AIDS.

The story begins in post–World War II Serbia, where in 1946 the Yugoslavian government granted Beljanski a two-year educational fellowship to study in Paris. Recently relieved from his duties fighting the German invasion, 22-year-old Beljanski moved to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne, where he discovered a passion for biochemistry and biological research. After the World Health Organization gave him a second two-year grant, Beljanski was hired in 1951 by the Pasteur Institute’s Department of Chemical Biology to complete his doctoral work.

These were the early days of genetics and molecular biology. James Watson and Francis Crick were still two years away from unveiling the curiously twisted double-helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. Penicillin, the first antibiotic, had been in use for only a decade. Other antibiotics were trickling to market, but researchers already were seeing signs that bacteria had begun to resist the medicine’s curative effects.

Asked to investigate this antibiotic resistance, Beljanski discovered that bacteria able to survive an antibiotic onslaught accumulate a larger internal supply of RNA, or ribonucleic acids, than do the same type of bacteria that have never been exposed to antibiotics. (RNA, a molecule in the same family as DNA but formed with a single “backbone” rather than DNA’s double backbone, performs a number of roles inside cells related to the production of proteins and expression of genes.)

The discovery made Beljanski one of the first molecular biologists to study RNA and its role in cell regulation. His work ultimately upended the previous accepted wisdom about what makes cancerous cells different from normal cells and brings us to today’s ongoing research at centers in the United States, where the plant extracts he refined are making advances against prostate, pancreatic, ovarian and even brain cancer and the RNA fragments he synthesized helped 70 patients in a 2010 clinical study complete their full schedule of chemotherapy.

Beljanski’s career began at the same time that the field of molecular biology did, with the discovery of how DNA’s double helix stores and deploys genetic information. For more than 40 years, molecular biologists focused solely on genetics, protein expression and how mutations to genes could cause cancer. Study the “letters” of the genetic alphabet, the theory went, and you would spot “typos” that lead to cancer. Figure out how to prevent those typos and you could learn how to stop cancer in its tracks.

But Beljanski demonstrated that the primary physical difference between normal and cancerous DNA lies within the structure of the double helix itself. DNA in cancerous cells has unwound, leaving gaping loops and holes where the two curving sides of the double helix fail to latch securely to each other any longer.

These “destabilized DNA,” as Beljanski dubbed them, are made that way by carcinogens and pollutants randomly attaching to sites along the molecule and slowly prying it open. By contrast, the two strands of a DNA molecule in normal cells open only temporarily and in small areas to allow for replication or gene expression.

In 1956, a New York University scientist (who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the mechanisms involved in the synthesis of RNA) invited Mirko and Monique to a two-year fellowship in America. Plagued by infighting within the Pasteur Institute, the couple moved to New York, where Monique, already pregnant with their first child, gave birth to daughter Sylvie.

By the time the family returned to Paris in early 1959, leadership at the Pasteur Institute was united in believing that DNA and genes called all the shots, and the Beljanskis’ work was no longer in favor. Undaunted, Beljanski continued looking for new types of RNA. And he found them. So-called transforming RNA could move information from one species of bacteria to another and then insert that information into the new species’ DNA. Subsequent generations of this species could then inherit these new genetic traits.

Beljanski began experimenting with customized RNA fragments able to protect otherwise healthy cells in cancer patients from the destructive effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Noting that the immune systems of cancer patients often became dangerously depressed during treatment, he focused his efforts on bone marrow stem cells—the birthplace of critical immune system components like white blood cells and platelets. Ultimately, he synthesized RNA fragments he dubbed “primers” that act like an accelerant on bone marrow stem cells, prompting them to generate critical new immune system cells to replace any destroyed during chemotherapy.

Beljanski’s research continued to undercut more broadly accepted theories around genetic mutations and RNA’s one-way communication role. The Pasteur Institute reduced his group’s funding, relegated his researchers to basement facilities and tried to thwart efforts to publish their positive results in academic journals. Finally, in 1978, the Pasteur Institute evicted Beljanski’s research team. The group moved to the University of Châtenay-Malabry’s School of Pharmacy, where Beljanski won a research contract with the French army to work on protecting human skin from the scarring effects of radiation aboard nuclear submarines.

This was where he first began to seek out naturally occurring anti-carcinogenic substances. He looked first to Ginkgo biloba trees, after hearing stories about how resistant they had been to radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite promising results from a ginkgo extract, however, the army—not wanting to acknowledge responsibility for any injury submarine sailors might have suffered—barred the group from publishing their research and ultimately decided against continuing to pursue the research.

After a decade at Châtenay-Malabry, Beljanski reached the mandatory French retirement age of 67 and was forced to stop working for any government-funded agency. When a French businessman whose son had just died of leukemia heard about Beljanski’s work and offered a few months later to fund a nonprofit research center in Saint-Prim with Beljanski as its chief researcher, he agreed immediately. This time, however, he focused his research on finding specific treatments for cancer and HIV.

First, he wanted to know more about substances in the environment that can cause cancer. He developed a simple laboratory test, the Oncotest, to check whether a compound affected cells in the way already known carcinogens did. To his surprise, a number of substances previously deemed harmless pried open DNA just as readily as known carcinogens did. That got him thinking. If compounds exist that cause cancerous cells to proliferate but have little impact on healthy cells, perhaps there are other substances that do the opposite. Might some compounds kill cancer cells while bypassing normal cells?

Through trial and error and by combing through journals for references to likely candidates, his researchers ultimately focused on two plants from the dogbane family: the innocuous-sounding Pao pereira and the somewhat dubious-sounding Rauwolfia vomitoria (see sidebar for details).

It’s helpful to know that there are two primary kinds of cell death: the suicide of “programmed cell death,” or apoptosis (from the ancient Greek for “falling off”), and necrosis, which occurs as a result of injury, infection or some other outside trauma. While cellular janitors routinely clean up after apoptosis, necrosis usually involves severe inflammation.

Because synthetic chemotherapy and radiation aren’t choosy about which cells they destroy—wiping out healthy cells right alongside cancerous ones—both types of cell death can occur with those therapies. It can be a messy business.

But both Pao pereira and Rauwolfia vomitoria slip easily into cancerous cells while leaving normal, healthy cells untouched. Once inside, both extracts readily persuade cancerous cells to commit cellular suicide and let natural mechanisms take out the trash. If all went well, doctors might no longer have to burn the body’s village in order to save it. Interestingly, Beljanski discovered—and subsequent peer-reviewed studies confirmed—that one or both of these plant extracts given at the same time as low-dose radiation or chemotherapy proved far more effective than either treatment regimen on its own.

Beljanski never sought out patients to try any of his experimental therapies. Instead, starting with an aging farmer in 1982, they managed to find him. Jean Le Guen was nearing retirement when he was diagnosed with a tumor on his pancreas that was resistant to both chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Doctors told him he had less than three months to live. Through a friend of his wife’s, Le Guen asked the Beljanskis for their formulations. After some debate, they decided to let him try them. The tumor became amenable to radiation, stopped growing and began to shrink. He continued taking maintenance doses of all three supplements until 1985, and died in his mid-nineties, following an accident several years ago. Le Guen was a popular union representative in Bretagne, and his story spread quickly; soon scores of cancer patients were seeking out the extracts.

In 1986, 40-year-old Gerard Weidlich, a former military officer, called to say that he’d heard about Pao pereira extract’s antiviral properties. He had HIV, an RNA-based virus, that he hoped could be treated with the extract. The first release of the common AIDS medication AZT was still a year away. Beljanski protested that the extract had never been tested on HIV, but Weidlich persuaded him to try anyway. Within two weeks of beginning to take the supplement, Weidlich’s health improved. Within a few years on Pao pereira, his viral load was undetectable. He went on to live in good health for two more decades, dying of an embolism in May 2007.

As anecdotal testimonials about the extracts spread, French officials grew increasingly uncomfortable. In 1989, France’s minister of social affairs and health, Claude Évin, filed the first charge against Beljanski of illegally practicing medicine. A court found him not guilty. Similar cycles of charges and acquittals ensued until 1994, when a very special, secret patient made a request. Confident of success, the Beljanskis hired consultants to conduct the lengthy process of seeking approval of the supplements from France’s equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration.

By 1994, President Mitterand was in pain with metastatic cancer and facing expectations that he would not survive to serve out the year and a half remaining in his term. Two years prior, he had revealed following a brief hospital stay that he had prostate cancer but that it was not life-threatening. In truth, he had first been diagnosed in 1981 but had managed to keep it a closely guarded secret.

Many in the country were apprehensive about France’s future as it weighed whether to join the European Union—a move that Mitterand supported. Politicians were jockeying for position in the event the president died. But his mistress, Anne Pingeon, introduced him to Dr. Philippe de Kuyper, a classically trained physician who knew of Beljanski’s work. The two hit it off and—to the chagrin of Mitterand’s official physician, Claude Gubler—de Kuyper began secretly prescribing Beljanski’s extracts for Mitterand.

Soon Mitterand grew stronger, gained weight and began to look healthier than he had in years. Although Beljanski’s extracts were not discussed publicly, Mitterand’s use of them was widely known. Popular demand for them burgeoned as Mitterand finished out his term in office.

Nearly a year after stepping down from the presidency, Mitterand died on January 8, 1996. Later that month, Dr. Gubler published his version of the story in a book called Le Grand Secret, naming Mirko Beljanski and claiming the extracts were a hoax.

Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, Sylvie Beljanski—the daughter born in New York during her father’s fellowship there—relied on her mother’s parents for the emotional support her own parents were too busy to provide. She graduated from law school, became an attorney and kept in contact with her parents periodically, but the relationship was cool and distant. “My grandmother was central to my upbringing. I was so lucky to have her,” she remembers. “I knew my parents loved me, and I’m sure they knew I loved them, but we definitely were not close. I did not really know what they were doing. It looked complicated. They were always in a bad mood and having trouble with the people surrounding them, so I did not try to stick around. I had my own life.”

In 1994, Mirko Beljanski asked his daughter for legal advice about terminating a licensing contract for some of his patents. Intrigued, she began to explore the details of his work and helped him with a few of the legal aspects of his business. Cautiously, they began to draw closer. A year later, Sylvie moved to a New York law firm, but she continued to call her parents regularly to check on them. Reaching her father at CIRIS was easy, she said, because one of the 17 employees usually picked up after a ring or two.

But on the morning of October 9, 1996, no one answered her repeated calls. She called the family apartment in Paris where her mother lived and was startled to hear a deep, husky voice.

“Hello? Mother?” she asked.

“I’m a police officer. You cannot speak to your mother. She is under arrest,” the voice replied.

Stunned, Sylvie immediately went into lawyer mode. “I’m her attorney,” she told the officer. “Put her on the line.”

Grudgingly, the man did. Monique told her daughter that officers had arrived at six in the morning and were turning the apartment upside down looking for something, but hadn’t said what it was they were seeking. Sylvie arranged for a French attorney to represent her mother and start looking for her father, who, it turns out, was being held in custody at CIRIS and would be transported to a Parisian jail the next day. She headed to the airport.

Less than a month later, Mirko Beljanski—who had been taking low doses of his plant extracts as a cancer preventive—was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and was fighting for his life. Because the government had confiscated and destroyed all of his extracts and RNA fragment therapies, Bel-jan-ski had no choice but to undergo traditional chemotherapy. As is common for cancer patients, the treatment felt worse than the underlying disease.

As her father became sicker, Sylvie Beljanski found herself drawn ever deeper into the details of his life’s work. “I started to take action and responsibility from day one,” she says. “That was my way to take care of them.” Her mother patiently began to walk her through the complicated science of what they had been doing for nearly 50 years, and Sylvie worked to prepare their criminal defense.

But as the months ticked by, there was little for her to do. In France, no jury is required to indict criminal suspects. Instead, she says, the prosecutor filed indictments—and then sat on the case. She couldn’t get access to the government’s evidence or its experts. No trial date was ever set. Her parents had been placed in the legal purgatory of house arrest, forbidden to conduct any scientific research, speak publicly about their previous work, publish any study results or interact with the hundreds of cancer patients begging them to resume production of the supplements they credited with prolonging their lives.

Nearly two years into the odyssey, Beljanski asked his daughter if there was anything more she could do legally to move the case forward. Flummoxed, she suggested filing an action with the European Court of Human Rights, based in Strasbourg, which could order France to schedule a trial, close the case and allow Beljanski to resume his research.

Please do that, he replied. Shortly afterwards—on October 28, 1998—he died.

Although France considered the criminal matter concluded following Beljanski’s death, his widow and daughter continued the human rights case. Years later, when the matter was brought before the court, Sylvie heard arguments in the government’s defense that she characterized as “baseless, silly, shameful.” On May 23, 2002, the court ruled unanimously that Mirko Beljanski had been denied due process and the opportunity to defend his scientific legacy. The judges levied a small civil penalty against France to cover the Beljanskis’ legal fees. The case was closed—but not for Sylvie and Monique.

Shortly before her father’s death, Sylvie had promised him she would do what she could to get his supplements back on the market, but this time in America. With the last of his energy, Beljanski summarized the details of his life’s work as best he could, shipped the few records he still had to New York and shared the names and contact information of some of CIRIS’s prescribing doctors. At her father’s funeral, a man she’d never met before whispered quietly to her: “We have to talk. You did promise to your father to continue, right?” Wondering how this man could possibly know that, she agreed. Curtly, he told her he would meet her at her family’s apartment at 4 p.m. the next day.

Gerard Weidlich—Beljanski’s first HIV patient from back in 1986—arrived as scheduled. With him were a woman, Henriette Bouchet, who had been taking Pao pereira for 12 years after her breast cancer diagnosis, and a man—Jean-Paul le Perlier, a journalist assigned in 1993 to investigate “the charlatan” Mirko Beljanski—who had recently been told he was dying of advanced colon cancer.

The visiting trio told Sylvie that they had been trying to keep CIRIS going after her parents’ arrest—Weidlich had become president of the organization by that time—but the government had frozen CIRIS’ bank accounts. More than 4,000 “supporting members” were willing to donate money to get the research going again, he told her. “All you have to do,” he said, “is come up with the extracts, restore the research program and find a way to send us our treatments.”

It was a tall order for an attorney with no background in science or medicine. But she agreed, and serendipity continued to be on their side.

A few days after that initial meeting, she got a phone call from one of CIRIS’ raw-materials suppliers. When the company was raided in October 1996, government agents had taken all of the unprocessed plant material and finished product they could find. But the agents failed to look inside the processing machinery and missed hundreds of liters of extract. The company had managed to stash away the extract in several barrels. They couldn’t do anything with it in France because they remained under surveillance.

Would Sylvie like them to ship the extract to New York?

Back in New York, she incorporated a new company, Natural Source International, to receive the extract and begin developing new products. Simultaneously, she set up a nonprofit group, the Beljanski Foundation, to renew CIRIS’ fundraising efforts and promote further independent research into Beljanski’s products through American laboratories.

The original CIRIS infrastructure began to emerge from France with client lists, doctor referrals, raw-materials sources and extract formulas. As an attorney, she knew that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dietary supplements. So, to ensure that Natural Source’s products were regarded as dietary supplements, she registered each of them with the FDA as a new dietary ingredient. She still had most of her parents’ toxicity studies to prove the substances weren’t harmful, which eased the FDA registration.

By 1999, Natural Source was selling enough products that Sylvie Beljanski could quit the last of her part-time law practice. She now works exclusively for Natural Source, where she holds the title of president, and for the family foundation, where she is vice president and her 85-year-old mother is president.

Marco Beljanski published 133 peer-reviewed studies of his work before his death, and tests of the compounds continue in the lab (in vitro) and in animal models (in vivo). For a variety of reasons, only a smattering of clinical trials on human patients has been done. A big part of the problem, notes researcher Qi Chen, who is working on the Beljanski project at the University of Kansas Medical Center, is that plant extracts contain so many different molecules that it’s difficult to know which substance is doing what. “We need to understand how each of the compounds involved is processed in the body,” Chen explains. “But when you extract things from a plant, you get a mixture of a lot of components. There’s a battery of experiments that needs to be done on each compound in the mixture.”

Testing synthetic molecules such as those developed by large pharmaceutical companies is a far more straightforward process. Sylvie Beljanski and Natural Source’s chief research scientist, John Hall, have tried unsuccessfully to persuade pharmaceutical companies to consider working with the extracts.

“My father wanted to study natural compounds with the same rigorous approach as if they were synthetic drugs,” Sylvie says. Doing so, however, creates a catch-22. “It’s a patent thing. If there is no patent to be obtained, there is no funding to be had. But to get a patent, you need to have a new molecule, and you can’t have a new molecule if it’s derived from a natural source. You have to tweak nature to get a return on your investment. But when you tweak nature, you put something synthetic in your body, and it won’t work the same way.”

Nonetheless, research continues today at both the University of Kansas and Columbia University Medical Center, as well as at the privately held Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

The results have been consistently positive. With backing from the Beljanski Foundation, Chen and her colleagues conducted two separate studies on pancreatic cancer in 2013 and 2014, one to test Rauwolfia vomitoria and the other to test Pao pereira. While the extracts alone killed a large percentage of the cancer cells, combining the extracts with chemotherapeutic drugs proved even more effective—and offered the added bonus of reducing the amount of chemotherapy needed. In some cases, chemotherapy alone did nothing to stop the cancer from spreading, while using the extracts alone or in combination with chemotherapy prevented the cancer from metastasizing.

Kansas researchers also conducted similar tests for each extract against ovarian cancer. Again, combining the extracts with common chemotherapy drugs proved much more effective than chemotherapy alone. In some cases, the combination destroyed up to 98 percent of cancer cells.

Studies of Pao pereira at Columbia University Medical Center, in New York, and Nanjing University, in China, have shown that it is effective at both preventing and fighting prostate cancer as well as having a strong anti-inflammatory effect. Unlike in other cancers, however, researchers found that too little or too much of the extract—described in statistics as a U-shaped curve, or in the vernacular as the “Goldilocks zone”—reduced the extract’s benefit. Earlier studies of Rauwolfia vomitoria did not show the same U-curve; instead, more cancer cells responded as dosage increased.

Thrombocytopenia (low blood platelets) is caused by chemotherapy. Because some chemotherapy drugs destroy healthy cells alongside cancerous ones—particularly in the bone marrow—many patients must stop or modify their chemotherapy schedule. A 2010 clinical trial with 70 patients at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America showed that Beljanski’s RNA fragments induce bone marrow stem cells to produce more platelets, allowing patients to complete their full course of chemotherapy without interruption.

So why aren’t more doctors and researchers working with these compounds? In short, explains Hall, the Beljanski Foundation’s senior scientific adviser, doctors are loath to try any new therapies until the old treatment plans are thoroughly discredited. “In science, ultimately, the whole structure is conservative,” he says. “It holds on to its paradigms and ideas as long as it can. It can be messy when it changes.”

But inevitably—inexorably—it does change. Over the past 15 years, scores of “integrative medicine” centers have opened across the United States. Unlike so-called alternative medicine, integrative medicine seeks to develop treatments that combine the best of classic medical care with natural or botanical products, nutrition, acupuncture and other complementary approaches. Both of the U.S. universities doing further studies on the Beljanski extracts and RNA fragments—Columbia and Kansas—have been conducting that research through their integrative medicine centers. And Cancer Treatment Centers of America highlights its integrative care model prominently. The American Hospital Association surveyed its members in 2011 about whether they currently offered, or planned to offer, CAM—complementary and alternative medicine—therapies. At that time, 42 percent of American hospitals already were offering at least one of these treatments, and 85 percent of the remaining hospitals were exploring adding CAM therapies soon.

Researcher Chen, from Kansas, who has an extensive background working with Chinese herbal medicines, believes the mixture of molecules in Beljanski’s plant extracts are both beneficial and problematic.

“Sometimes a mixture is better than a single compound. When Chinese herbs are studied, they purify it down to the point that they lose the beneficial activity or they increase the toxicity,” she says. “But these extracts are so much messier to work with. They work on so many targets that you can get lost about which way to chase them clinically.”

Nonetheless, if she were to become a cancer patient herself, she believes she would turn to both classical treatments and the extracts.

“Why not? There’s no harm,” she says. “And it does look like they work.” 

Janet Rae-Dupree is a Northern California freelance writer who cover science, medicine and innovation.

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In good company

Mirko Beljanski isn’t the first, nor the last, scientist to be denigrated for exploring new ideas.

Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis wondered why women at the Vienna maternity clinic where he worked in 1848 were dying of so-called childbed fever, known clinically as puerperal fever. He discovered that women who gave birth at clinics with doctors and medical students in attendance were five times more likely to die of this fever than were women who had their babies with midwives. The key difference, Semmelweis determined, was that his colleagues conducted autopsies, while midwives did not. Before there was any inkling that germs existed, he surmised that “cadaverous particles”—unseen bits of a corpse—were getting inside female patients, and he demanded that his staff wash their hands and medical instruments thoroughly before moving from an autopsy to a birth. Fatalities from childbed fever dropped. More than two decades after his death, his work was vindicated by Louis Pasteur’s germ theory.

Austrian theoretical physicist and mathematician Ludwig Boltzmann first proposed in the 1870s, as he worked to understand the laws of thermodynamics, that matter is made up of molecules and atoms. His efforts created the foundation for a field that came to be known as statistical mechanics, but his insights weren’t appreciated at the time. Instead, other prominent physicists dismissed his work and disregarded atomic theory because they believed physical science was based entirely on energy conditions, a field of study they called “energetics.”

He had what was regarded as a successful career holding prominent university positions, but he became despondent in his later years as he spent increasingly more time defending his theories. In September 1906, Boltzmann hanged himself. Two years later, Jean Baptiste Perrin confirmed the existence of atoms.

Some scientists live to see their work vindicated. Neurologist and biochemist Dr. Stanley Prusiner endured 15 years of scorn after he discovered an infectious protein known as a prion in 1982. Ultimately, prions were found to be the infectious agent behind Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease—a.k.a. mad cow disease—and are believed to contribute to a number of other brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Huntington’s disease. Prusiner’s prion hypothesis—that harmless prions can be found throughout the human brain but begin to kill neurons and create holes in the brain when they fold into abnormal shapes—was widely rejected at first. Now the director of the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco, Prusiner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1997 for his work with prions.

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