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Scientists work to halt spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in Alberta wildlife

Veterinary Medicine researchers part of $11.6-million Genome Canada grant

Sabine Gilch, assistant professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, is working to develop a simple fecal test to help researchers determine what populations of animals are infected with Chronic Wasting Disease.Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

In a related project, professor Hermann Schaetzl in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is creating novel cell-culture based models to help speed the study of Chronic Wasting Disease

By Jennifer Allford, for the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

Two researchers in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) are working with colleagues at the University of Alberta to better understand Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a highly infectious and fatal neurological disease that’s spreading across North America and threatening elk, moose, mule and white-tailed deer. Caribou are also susceptible to CWD, it's shown up in reindeer in Norway and new strains of the disease may threaten even more wild mammals.

The researchers received $11.6-million in funding to explore different aspects of CWD and develop an early detection and rapid response system to reduce the risk of it spreading in Canada. The disease spreads through prions, the misfolded and pathologic version of the cellular prion protein (PrP), and can remain active in carcasses, saliva and feces of infected animals and elsewhere in the environment for many years, leading to further infection of animals.

Determine what populations of animals are infected

“We want to get a full picture of genetic variations that are out there in the field in Alberta,” says Sabine Gilch, assistant professor and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Prion Disease Research in Ecosystem and Public Health at UCVM. She received $600,000 within a Genome Canada grant to analyze the prion proteins in caribou to determine the type and frequency of amino acid variations and develop a simple fecal test to help researchers determine what populations of animals are infected.

“The vision is to be able to go out into the field and collect fecal samples and get information about whether there is CWD present in an area and ideally get an estimate of what percentage of animals are infected,” she says. “Having the test will help us learn how the disease spreads and make predictions where it could be expected next, and then develop efficient management strategies.”

To study CWD, researchers mimic the disease in mouse models, but that’s time consuming and expensive, says Hermann Schaetzl, professor of Prion Biology and Immunology in Comparative Biology and Experimental Medicine at UCVM. He received $400,000 to create novel cell-culture based models, which take less time and money to work with.

No known cure and no existing vaccine for prion diseases

“Mouse models take two years and having a cell culture model lets you study all kinds of prions with different genetic backgrounds in genetically different species,” says Schaetzl. “We want to have quick models which allow us to predict what will happen with the prions.”

Other prion diseases include bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.  There is no known cure and no existing vaccine for any of them.

Gilch and Schaetzl are working with principal investigators and colleagues at the University of Alberta on The Systems Biology and Molecular Ecology of Chronic Wasting Disease project. Their different studies will be used to develop a comprehensive plan for managing CWD in Canada and ideally contain the disease.

The total funding package was made possible through numerous cash and in-kind funders including the Alberta Prion Research Institute and Alberta Innovates which each contributed $1 million, and Genome Canada which provided $3 million to the funding total.