Forging Unique Partnerships to Combat Chronic Wasting Disease

August 14, 2017 | by Nick Pinizzotto

Have you ever heard of the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center? I’m guessing most of you reading this probably haven’t, and neither had I until I read an article in the July 14 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailing the possibility of the Prion Center losing critical funding. Less than 24 hours later, I received an email from the administration of Case Western Reserve University, where the Center resides, wanting to talk about CWD and a potential partnership.

The Prion Center was established in 1997 at the Division of Neuropathology of Case Western Reserve University. Several European countries also have established surveillance centers to monitor the occurrence of prion diseases or spongiform encephalopathies, in response to the epidemic of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "mad cow disease," which occurred in the United Kingdom during the 1980s.

As the only prion disease surveillance center in the country, the Prion Center is increasing their research of chronic wasting disease (CWD). The problem is, the Prion Center would lose all of its federal funding and cease operations under President Trump's proposed fiscal 2018 budget. That’s bad news at a time when we need to be increasing budgets for learning more about CWD. Luckily, there is still time to revise the budget and we have heard of some positive developments in recent weeks.

I happen to live just a couple of hours from the Prion Center, so I drove to meet with its director, Dr. Jiri Safar, as well as several people in the Case Western Reserve University administration. Dr. Safar delivered an eye-opening presentation about prion diseases and the work of the Prion Center, and it’s something that I wish I could passably articulate here, but I won’t attempt it. Of particular interest to me was the section on the implications of CWD in wild-ranging deer and elk for human prion surveillance. One of the key points was that there is likely a barrier for deer- and elk-to-human transmission, but it is prion strain-dependent, and CWD prions are highly unstable and mutable.

The fact remains that we know far less about CWD and prion diseases than what we do know, and the only way that will change is if we can accumulate the necessary funding for further research, and in-field monitoring and surveillance. That starts by better informing our elected officials at both the state and federal level about CWD, and the urgent need to make sizable financial commitments to the issue. In a meeting later this month with top conservation leaders in D.C., we intend to craft a strategy to do just that.

In a recent study led by the Alberta Prion Research Institute at the University of Alberta, macaque monkeys contracted CWD after being fed meat from CWD-positive deer. While that still doesn’t prove that the disease is transmissible to humans, it may be enough to convince decision makers in the U.S. to pay closer attention to what most agree is the biggest threat to deer, elk, and moose in North America.

While clearly more research is necessary when it comes to human susceptibility to CWD, there are a myriad of other areas that must be explored ranging from how to best manage the disease when found, to understanding more clearly how it is spread. We need to arm our state agencies and other wildlife managers with as much good information as we can so that the best results can be obtained for deer, hunters, industry, and even non-hunters.

A strong partnership with the Prion Center just makes sense. We share many of the same goals when it comes to the desire to know more about CWD, and now is not the time to talk about cutting, or even maintaining, research and surveillance budgets. In fact, we need to work hard and fast toward increasing financial resources. A combination of more money, bigger and stronger partnerships, consistent messaging, and a more informed public is needed if we hope to make progress on CWD, and I’m encouraged by the positive momentum being generated in recent weeks. The road is long, but I believe we’re setting the right course to reach our destination.