New CWD antemortem test in development

Research could lead to "live" test for prion and other neurological diseases in livestock and people.

Leading the cervid industry for more than 30 years, the North American Deer Farmers Assn. (NADeFA) assisted recent efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand scientific research on chronic wasting disease (CWD) that could lead to a new disease prevention strategy.

During a recent depopulation of a CWD-infected herd of whitetail deer in Iowa, researchers from Kansas State University, who were sponsored by NADeFA, and USDA's National Wildlife Research Center collected a variety of samples, including blood, feces, nasal swabs and tissue biopsies from the live deer prior to euthanasia. The "live" samples will provide critical data needed to develop an all-new live testing protocol for CWD.

"The herd depopulation in Iowa gave researchers a rare opportunity to collect significant live data, and we're very proud to have worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the private herd owner in Iowa to conduct the research necessary to successfully combat CWD and save the lives of thousands of deer," NADeFA executive director Shawn Schafer said.

Current management practices require the destruction of entire deer herds when a single animal tests positive for CWD; however, most of the animals destroyed are often found to be perfectly healthy afterwards. The Kansas State research, sponsored by NADeFA and the Cervid Livestock Foundation, is developing three testing methods — nasal swab, rectal biopsy and blood samples — for the early detection of CWD and to prevent the excessive euthanasia of thousands of animals.

"Without the help and cooperation of the land owner and NADeFA, these opportunities would not have been available," said Dr. Nicholas Haley, who is part of the Kansas State research team. "The samples will be evaluated using cutting-edge approaches to detect very low levels of the prion agent that causes CWD in an effort to identify which sample and testing strategy is the most useful for diagnosis. The development of a live-animal test may eventually allow identification of CWD-infected animals under quarantine without the need for large-scale culling of animals."

CWD, a fatal brain disease that affects deer, elk and moose, is similar to other prion diseases including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and human Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

Haley explained that the diagnosis of CWD, as well as BSE and CJD, currently requires samples collected after death, including brain and lymph node tissues. Researchers hope that through the combined efforts of state and federal regulatory agencies and deer and elk farmers, progress can be made on the development of an antemortem, or live animal, test. Such a live test could be useful for diagnosis of human prion diseases and potentially other diseases including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

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