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Researchers seeking fast, accurate test to halt spread of chronic wasting disease

Trevor Ames, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and Michael Osterholm, director of the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, testify Feb. 7. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Experts stressed the need Thursday for a fast, accurate and inexpensive test that can be deployed throughout the state in response to the emerging chronic wasting disease crisis.

Their testimony, during an informational hearing before the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division, came on the heels of a request for $1.8 million to fund test development. Division leaders asked for a more comprehensive explanation of the disease and research efforts.

Chronic wasting disease is a prion spread neurological disease that causes deterioration of the brain, and with it the loss of motor control and eventually death.

While there are no known cases of the disease being transmitted to humans, the Centers for Disease Control recommends against consumption of infected venison. Recent and ongoing studies have indicated it may be possible for the disease to cross over into humans.

Current testing is time consuming, complicated and relatively expensive.

Researchers hope to work across areas of expertise to develop a test that can be used on live or dead animals; can be conducted anywhere at any time; and will supply accurate results within minutes to a few hours.

House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division 2/7/19

“The prion is limited in its geographic distribution, so we can’t let cervid farming continue to spread it and let the responsibility fall where it may. And that has been the responsible party that has brought us the problem and spread it widely in North America,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. “… What’s happened has happened, but it doesn’t have to be tomorrow, so let’s keep this limited to the locations it is [in] right now.

“We are having discussions right now with the CDC, [National Institutes of Health] and others about how they have to elevate the critical nature of this situation and make it clear that this is a very critical, time sensitive public health issue.”

The presence of the disease in deer farms contains an element of opportunity, according to University of Minnesota professor Peter Larsen. Studying transmission in the wild is deeply complicated, while farmed deer would allow researches a more controlled access for study.

The test the researchers are confident they can develop within two years would allow the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to work more effectively with the Department of Natural Resources and Board of Animal Health as they seek to contain the disease. It would also help lay the groundwork for better understanding variables such as persistence in the environment of the disease, exposure levels, and eventually, effective treatment, cure, or eradication of the disease.

Treatment, cure or eradication has implications to human health even if the disease does not spread into humans, since a number of prion diseases exist.

Many aspects of the disease are not understood. How persistent it is in the environment and how easily it is transmitted could have direct impacts of meat processors across the state. Some processors have already stopped processing deer, having determined on their own it cannot be done safely, according to Osterholm. The prion is, he and Larsen stressed, nearly indestructible.

Osterholm stressed the importance of educating the public about the disease, referencing the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy — so-called “mad cow disease” — another prion disease, into humans in the late 1990s.

Experts had initially thought the infected meet was safe to eat when the disease was detected in 1986. When the first cases of humans infected with the disease came to light 10 years later, it resulted in serious harm to the European meat market and damage to trust in public health institutions, Osterholm stated.

Testing and how it is deployed is critical as is the understanding of chronic wasting disease epidemiology, he said, while noting game farms may offer best opportunity for learning much of this.

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