Misfolded proteins known as prions have been the culprit behind some brain diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Alzheimer’s, mad cow, and other deadly afflictions. Brain-eating cannibals in Papua New Guinea were nearly wiped out in the 20th century by a “contagious” brain disease spread through their elaborate mortuary feasts.

But a new study finds that prions in the pancreas could be behind type 2 diabetes that's affecting millions of Americans – meaning that the proteins could potentially be the seed of the common condition normally associated with factors ranging from aging to diet to genetics, as reported in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Although the mouse model work may have “profound implications for public health” in pointing toward possible transmission, there is no reason for widespread alarm yet, add the scientists from the University of Texas.

“Considering the experimental nature of the models and conditions utilized in this study, the results should not be extrapolated to conclude that type 2 diabetes is a transmissible disease in humans without additional studies,” said Claudio Soto, the senior author, director of the Georgie and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Brain Disorders at the school.

The target protein is called islet amyloid polypeptide, or IAPP.

The Texas team injected the misfolded variety of IAPP into mice who genetically were producing human IAPP. The mice developed diabetes-like symptoms in a matter of weeks. Laboratory investigation determined the rodents lost pancreatic beta cells and had higher blood sugar levels – both suspected pathways of the rogue IAPP.

“Until now, this concept has not been considered,” said Soto. “Our data therefore opens up an entirely new area of search with profound implications for public health. This prion-like mechanism may play a key role in the spreading of the pathology form cell to cell or islet to islet during the progression of type 2 diabetes.”

Diabetes risk increases after blood transfusions, organ transplants, or through maternal inheritance, according to some anecdotal studies.

“There are several articles suggesting an infectious-like pandemic increase in type 2 diabetes incidence, although that is mostly attributed to changes in lifestyle and increases in obesity rates,” they add.

Type 2 diabetes has been a huge driver in health costs in the U.S. and beyond. Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that tens of millions of people with “prediabetes” will soon develop the condition.

Prions and the diseases they spread have been increasing concerns over the last several years. A team of scientists, also at the University of Texas, discovered two tests that are 100 percent accurate in identifying the presence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob and mad cow disease.