CWD Studies Explore
Cross-Speicies Jump To Humans

Environment News Service

WASHINGTON, DC (ENS) - The Food and Drug Administration will commission two studies to assess the human health risk of chronic wasting disease (CWD), part of a comprehensive effort to combat the spread of the disease in deer and elk herds across the country, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced Monday.
Overall, the Health and Human Services (HHS) department has proposed spending more than $29.2 million in fiscal year 2003 to expand research efforts to fight the growing threat of prion diseases, including chronic wasting disease among the nation's deer and elk populations.
Chronic wasting disease is one form of a group of fatal brain diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, or TSEs. These diseases include bovine spongiform encephalopathy - BSE or mad cow disease in cattle - scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
The hallmark of TSE disease is accumulation in the brain of abnormal prion proteins - misshapen versions of the normal prion proteins found on the surface of brain cells. There is no evidence that CWD has caused illness in humans.
"We must determine whether CWD is a threat to our food supply and how best to stop the spread of this disease in our deer and elk herds," Thompson said. "We will aggressively pursue innovative methods to expand research and direct assistance to states to fight the spread of CWD."
Scientists do not know yet whether deer or elk with chronic wasting disease might also transmit some form of TSE disease to people who eat or have close contact with them. With the disease beginning to spread over a wider geographical area in the United States, answering this question is of critical public health importance, Thompson said.
Chronic wasting disease is known to affect free ranging deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Wisconsin and New Mexico. States that have or have had farmed elk herds with the disease are South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Montana.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will commission a formal risk assessment regarding the present potential human health consequences of chronic wasting disease and another on CWD transmissibility.
The studies will identify areas were data gaps exist and where research efforts should be focused to reduce the potential threat to health posed by chronic wasting disease.
The FDA studies are being commissioned as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has intensified its efforts to understand and fight this disease. Recently, a component of NIH, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), awarded a seven year, $8.4 million contract to Colorado State University to establish an emerging disease research center focused on chronic wasting disease.
Scientists at NIAID's Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, have initiated studies aimed at developing new therapies against chronic wasting disease. Researchers there plan experiments to determine whether the disease can be transmitted from deer or elk to monkeys, another model for assessing the potential for human transmission.
Recently, Rocky Mountain Lab scientists established that another TSE disease, hamster scrapie, could jump species - adapting to and causing disease in mice.
RML scientists have designed transgenic mice to make studying chronic wasting disease faster and less expensive. These mice carry the prion proteins of deer and elk, so their bodies react to the disease as a deer or elk would. Scientists will study the disease in these mice rather than in the larger animals, which are much more expensive and labor intensive to keep.
NIH has budgeted an estimated $24.3 million for TSE research in fiscal year 2002 and has requested $26.4 million in fiscal year 2003 - an 8.7 percent increase. Secretary Thompson called on Congress to move quickly to approve the HHS budget for fiscal year 2003, which began October 1.
"At a time when this devastating disease is harming deer and elk herds throughout America, we must do all we can to provide additional resources to research and combat CWD," Secretary Thompson said. "This is groundbreaking research that will have tangible implications for hunters and farmers."
The new Colorado research center in Ft. Collins, headed by veterinarian Dr. Edward Hoover, will investigate the mechanics of chronic wasting disease infection in deer and elk, especially in the immune system's lymphoid tissues. Such studies underlie the search for improved diagnostics and therapies.
Scientists at the Ft. Collins center will work on a possible vaccine to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk.
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