New funding expands chronic wasting disease research

two people in protective gear work in a laboratory
University of Minnesota researchers Manci Li and Peter Christenson prepare samples to test for chronic wasting disease.
Courtesy Tiffany Wolf

In 2019 lawmakers approved about $2 million to fund research on a faster diagnostic test for chronic wasting disease, an always fatal disease spread by malformed proteins called prions.

The disease affects deer, elk and other members of the cervid family.

"We successfully developed a prototype. We were the first team to test for CWD within 24 hours in the field," said Peter Larsen, co-director of the University of Minnesota Center for Prion Research and Outreach.

The new funding will help bring the improved testing method out of the laboratory.

"Now that we have functional prototypes, we need to expand them into forms that can be useful for management agencies like the DNR, eventually, even a deer side test," said Larsen.

Faster, cheaper testing would allow for improved surveillance of farmed deer and elk in Minnesota, and more readily available testing of hunter-killed wild deer.

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A no trespassing sign on a fence
A forested location in northern Minnesota is a hot spot for chronic wasting disease after a farmer reportedly dumped carcasses of infected deer.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The test developed at the University of Minnesota is called MN QuIC. Pronounced MINN-quick, it uses nanoparticles to identify prions in tissue samples. The test still needs to be validated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a process that will take at least a year.

Another rapid test called RT-QuIC — pronounced ARE-TEE-quick — could be approved by the USDA for use by early next year, said Larsen.

A new company has been created to attract investors who can bring the MN-QuIC test to market.

"Really the only way that they're going to see the light of day in the broader world is it has to be through a startup company, or it has to be through industry,” Larsen explained.

In addition to $3.8 million from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund approved for operation of the prion research center, the Legislature targeted about $700,000 to study prions in soil.

a kneeling woman takes notes in a forest
University of Minnesota researcher Dr. Tiffany Wolf collects samples from an area of northern Minnesota where carcasses of deer infected with chronic wasting disease were dumped.
Courtesy Peter Larsen

"The reality with chronic wasting disease, especially here in Minnesota, is that we do not know how long these molecules can stay infectious in the environments that we have across the state," Larsen said.

There is some evidence prions can remain infectious for a decade or more in the environment.

Larsen says researchers found prions in soil where carcasses of CWD infected deer were dumped in Beltrami County last year. But there is still much to learn about the fate of those prions in the environment.

"There is an intense research effort in understanding how prions bind to various soil types. And how our intense Minnesota winters will influence those prions over time," he said.

Researchers are also looking at whether prions in the soil stay attached to soil particles, or can move through the soil with water or into growing plants.

An important area of expanded research will be to test potential treatments for the disease. Scientists in Canada and Colorado State University are developing oral vaccines for chronic wasting disease, which, if they are approved for use Larsen said, could be mixed with feed left where wild deer graze.

U of M researchers are just beginning to test ways to target and destroy prions that cause CWD infection.

"There's various compounds that we're looking at that, the combination of which we believe would neutralize the prion,” Larsen said. “There's a lot of research, a lot of work that needs to be done on that.”

"The hope is that four years from now we'll reach milestones to actually get to an effective strategy to fight the disease, rather than just detecting it," he said.

And while there are no identified human cases of chronic wasting disease, scientists are concerned it will eventually infect humans.

Since the prions that cause CWD are not all the same, Larsen said the concern is a variant could develop that would be infectious in humans. So researchers at the U of M are starting work to create a database of the disease causing prions.

a gloved hand holds test tubes
University of Minnesota researchers prepare samples of deer tissue to be tested for chronic wasting disease.
Courtesy Carolyn Bernhardt

"Think of different strains of viruses,” said Larsen. “There's going to be different strains of CWD prions. And so what we're going to do is look at that variation across the State of Minnesota to help understand what that variety is. Ultimately that's going to be very important for understanding human risk."

Larsen says that data collection will include collaboration with researchers in other parts of the country.

There are still more questions than answers about CWD, but Larsen is confident the next three to four years will bring more break throughs in tracking and controlling the disease.