Recent Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) research may finally be on a productive track.
CWD is a TSE disease, a “transmissible spongiform encephalopathy” infecting the brain and nervous tissue of an animal, making it become sponge-like. The cattle version is called mad cow disease. In sheep it’s scrapie. In humans it’s Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Currently, no treatment can halt progression of any of the TSE diseases, and it’s always fatal.
Until now state game departments were operating on the belief that CWD is caused by a prion (a deformed or “misfolded” protein). Wildlife management responses to the disease have necessarily been limited because no one has shown how the prion acts as in infectious agent. As the science lags behind the management needs, wildlife managers have been struggling for more adequate, effective responses.
The responses have mostly been limited to inhibiting the spread of the disease by using testing programs, containment areas, rules against transportation of deer and infected parts, and the culling of large numbers of deer.
Left unchecked, CWD may have the potential for ecological disaster because it threatens deer hunting — the lifeblood of wildlife management. Science understands little about it, and it now appears that what we think we understand may be wrong.
How the prion transmits the disease is poorly understood, making treatment hopeless. The “prion theory” has not produced a way to test a live animal for infection, and no way to cure an infected animal. Much research focuses on monitoring the disease in the wild, ways to dispose of infected animals, and decontaminating environments where prions can persist in soils.
Hope is rising, however, thanks to research by Dr. Frank Bastian, an animal scientist specializing in neuropathology at Louisiana State University. Bastian’s hypothesis runs counter to what biologists have long believed — that the prion is the cause of the disease. He believes the prion is a result, or a marker of the disease. The cause, his research suggests, is a bacteria called a spiroplasma. He has shown that the prion is not found in every case, but a particular spiroplasma bacterium is consistently associated with TSEs, no matter the species infected.
If Bastian is right, this will be a breakthrough in TSE research and will change the game on several levels. First, bacterial diseases can be treated. Second, a test for living animals may be able to be devised. Third, a vaccine could be developed that will inoculate deer (and other animals) against TSE diseases.
Since 2014 Dr. Bastian has been laboring without much support from other researchers. His breakthrough comes with discovering a medium in which to cultivate and grow the spiroplasma bacteria — a necessity to studying its transmission and effects. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are interested in joining his work, and wildlife departments across the nation are watching closely.
Being able to grow the bacteria opens the door for new methods of treatment and cure. Dr. Bastian foresees the development of a test kit hunters can use in the field within perhaps two to three years.
While the jury is far from ready to deliver a verdict, Dr. Bastian’s work certainly gives reason to be optimistic that more effective steps can be taken against CWD.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.