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Lowering expression of prion protein (PrP) is a well-validated therapeutic strategy in prion disease, but additional modalities are urgently needed. In other diseases, small molecules have proven capable of modulating pre-mRNA splicing, sometimes by forcing inclusion of cryptic exons that reduce gene expression. Here, we characterize a cryptic exon located in human PRNP's sole intron and evaluate its potential to reduce PrP expression through incorporation into the 5' untranslated region (5'UTR). This exon is homologous to exon 2 in non-primate species, but contains a start codon that would yield an upstream open reading frame (uORF) with a stop codon prior to a splice site if included in PRNP mRNA, potentially downregulating PrP expression through translational repression or nonsense-mediated decay. We establish a minigene transfection system and test a panel of splice site alterations, identifying mutants that reduce PrP expression by as much as 78%. Our findings nominate a new therapeutic target for lowering PrP.

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