Woman Dies from Brain-Destroying Infection Caused by a Lab Accident

She developed a fatal brain disorder after being accidentally pricked by medical equipment 7.5 years ago.
Fabienne Lang

What looked like an inconsequential lab accident back in 2010 has most likely caused the death of a woman in her 30s in France. It took nearly a decade for the serious brain disorder to develop from the accident, as per a recently published study on the matter. 

The fatal brain disorder occurred after the young woman pierced her skin with medical equipment used to handle infectious rogue proteins known as prions

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.


Potentially dangerous proteins

Gizmodo was the first to report on the matter since the study was published, explaining what had happened to the woman in France. 

Each and every one of us has prions, which are a type of protein that live in our brains. Typically, they're known as being harmless, however, they're not 100% fully understood quite yet. 

What is known, though, is that on rare occasions they can transform into a misfolded version. After years or decades of these misfolded prions gathering in the brain, they end up destroying the brain from the inside out. These misfolds create microscopic holes in the brain, in which prion diseases develop. 

What's worrying is that prion diseases can be infectious. They can spread from person to person, or even between a human and an animal and vice versa. One example of this is mad cow disease, which raged on in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The young woman in question was a lab technician in a prion-researching facility in 2010, as per the study. As she was using a pair of curved forceps to handle frozen, prion-infected brain samples, these slipped and stabbed into her thumb. Even though she was wearing medical gloves, the sharp edge cut into her skin, drawing blood.

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Roughly seven and a half years later she started experiencing intolerable pain down the right side of her neck and shoulder, and her condition worsened rapidly to include memory impairment, visual hallucinations, and muscle stiffness along her right side. Just 19 months after then, she passed away. 

Tests before and post-mortem confirmed that she had vCJD, variant-Creutzfeld-Jakob disease — or mad cow disease. 

Prions are known to be very hard to "kill", a huge concern when performing any medical procedure on the brain

"Such cases highlight the need for improvements in the prevention of transmission of variant CJD and other prions that can affect humans in the laboratory and neurosurgery settings," wrote the authors of the study.

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