The cellular prion protein (PrPC) is a sialoglycoprotein anchored to the external surface of cells by a glycosyl phosphatidylinositol moiety. During scrapie, an abnormal PrP isoform designated PrPSc accumulates, and much evidence argues that it is a major and necessary component of the infectious prion. Based on the resistance of native PrPSc to proteolysis and to digestion with phosphatidylinositol-specific phospholipase C as well as the enhancement of PrPSc immunoreactivity after denaturation, we devised in situ immunoassays for the detection of PrPSc in cultured cells. Using these immunoassays, we identified the sites of PrPSc accumulation in scrapie-infected cultured cells. We also used these immunoassays to isolate PrPSc-producing clones from a new hamster brain cell line (HaB) and found an excellent correlation between their PrPSc content and prion infectivity titers. In scrapie-infected HaB cells as well as in scrapie-infected mouse neuroblastoma cells, most PrPSc was found to be intracellular and most localized with ligands of the Golgi marker wheat germ agglutinin. In one scrapie-infected HaB clone, PrPSc also localized extensively with MG-160, a protein resident of the medial-Golgi stack whereas this colocalization was not observed in another subclone of these cells. Whether the sites of intracellular accumulation of PrPSc are limited to a few subcellular organelles or they are highly variable remains to be determined. If the intracellular accumulation of PrPSc is found in the cells of the central nervous system, then it might be responsible for the neuronal dysfunction and degeneration which are cardinal features of prion diseases.

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