In order to study the sites of uptake and mechanisms of dissemination of scrapie prions in the natural host under controlled conditions, lambs aged 14 days and homozygous for the VRQ allele of the PrP gene were infected by the oral route. Infection occurred in all lambs with a remarkably short and highly consistent incubation period of approximately 6 months. Challenge of lambs at approximately eight months of age resulted in disease in all animals, but with more variable incubation periods averaging significantly longer than those challenged at 14 days.
This model provides an excellent system in which to study the disease in the natural host by virtue of the relatively short incubation period and close resemblance to natural infection.
Multiple sites of prion uptake were identified, of which the most important was the Peyer's patch of the distal ileum.
Neuroinvasion was detected initially in the enteric nervous system prior to infection of the central nervous system. At end stage disease prion accumulation was widespread throughout the entire neuraxis, but vacuolar pathology was absent in most animals that developed disease at 6–7 months of age.
Initial spread of detectable PrP was consistent with drainage in afferent lymph to dependent lymph nodes. Subsequent accumulation of prions in lymphoid tissue not associated with the gut is consistent with haematogenous spread. In addition to macrophages and follicular dendritic cells, prion containing cells consistent with afferent lymph dendritic cells were identified and are suggested as a likely vehicle for carriage of prions from initial site of uptake to the lymphoreticular system, and as potential carriers of prion protein in blood. It is apparent that spongiform change, the characteristic lesion of scrapie and other prion diseases, is not responsible for the clinical signs in sheep, but may develop in an age dependent manner.