Minnesota scientists aim to curb chronic wasting disease with 'moonshot' tool

The $1.8 million ask could help detect the fatal disease in cervids before they die.

Veterinary students and scientists test a farm deer for chronic wasting disease at the University of Minnesota Monday, Jan. 28, 2019 in St. Paul. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

ST. PAUL - Minnesota scientists say they could have a tool to detect a fatal neurodegenerative disease in deer within two years. But it will come at a cost.

As the state fights to protect wild and captive deer from catching chronic wasting disease, veterinary scientists at the University of Minnesota told Forum News Service on Monday, Jan. 28, that they expect to have a breakthrough prototype tool to detect the disease in 2021. And they asked lawmakers last week for $1.8 million to make that a reality.

There's no test that can detect the disease in live deer at this point. And there's no vaccine or antidote to get rid of it.

And as wildlife officials report increasing numbers of deer infected with the disease, some warned that Minnesota's deer population — and possibly others — could face a serious threat if CWD can't be managed.

Chronic wasting disease has been confirmed in other species, but not in humans. But scientists worry that the disease, which is like mad cow disease, could become a danger to humans if not kept in check.


"There's an affliction now and it's attacking this tradition and it's causing fear and we owe it to history like this to try and to go for the moonshot," Peter Larsen, a professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences, said, pointing to Theodore Roosevelt's book "The Deer Family."

The disease stems from a mutation in proteins called prions and it was first detected in captive deer in 1967. And it is highly contagious. It can be spread through an animal's waste, saliva and bodily fluids.

And from those bodily materials, it can pass to other animals that eat an infected deer's remains or interact with soil or plants which soak up the animal matter. Scientists say they don't yet know how long the mutated prions can live on.

In Minnesota, more than 30 wild deer have been confirmed to have CWD. Wisconsin, by comparison, has reported thousands of cases. Minnesota Natural Resource officials have scheduled special sharpshooter hunts to help expose the scale of the problem and state lawmakers have said they'd explore possible legislative solutions.

Minnesota legislators last week heard the pitch from U of M scientists and said they'd seriously consider that as they weigh how to write a nearly $50 billion state budget.

Building a better test

To test a deer or other cervid for CWD now, the animal needs to be killed and samples of its brain stem undergo examination. That process takes more than two weeks and can run $30-80 per test.

"It's slow and it's expensive and it's invasive and it's on dead animals," Jeremy Schefers, a diagnostician in the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, said. "This particular test although it's good, it doesn't serve our needs."

Schefers said his lab would struggle to process tests for the hundreds of thousands of deer killed during hunting season each year. And hunters would have to wait weeks to see test results before breaking butchered deer meat out of the freezer for cooking.


Schefers and Larsen said they'd like to see a test that was closer to a take-home pregnancy test: something hunters could take into the field and scientists could use to detect CWD in the animals or their waste within minutes.

That way people would know earlier, and possibly while an animal is alive if the deer is infected and its disease could spread.

Asking for $1.8 million

The scientists working on the project said they were hopeful that lawmakers would accept their pitch, despite the $1.8 million price tag.

"The ask seems like a lot, just under $2 million, but research is really expensive," said Pam Skinner, a professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences. "It takes millions of dollars for new treatments."

Scientists and hunting enthusiasts have said the state brings in more than $1 billion each year from the Minnesota hunting economy and further spread of CWD could erode that.

Minnesota lawmakers are set to present their budget priorities later this year.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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