Another school of thought about what causes chronic wasting disease in deer

The controversy centers around prions, those mysterious non-bacteria, non-virus particles that we have been told for years somehow cause the disease. (Teddy Roosevelt Partnership)

A lot of what you have heard and read about the cause of chronic wasting disease is in doubt – or maybe not. It depends on which scientists you believe. Seems there is and has been a controversy brewing on the subject for years. Who knew?

The controversy centers around prions, those mysterious non-bacteria, non-virus particles that we have been told for years somehow cause the disease.

They were discovered in 1982 by neurologist Dr. Stanley Prusiner. He suggested that those “misfolded proteins” cause transmissible spongiform encephalopathies – brain diseases like chronic wasting disease, mad cow and sheep scrapie. Prusiner won a Nobel Prize for his achievement, setting off a flurry of  prion-based research.

Today, 99 percent of scientists believe prions cause CWD. That’s why we haven’t heard about the alternate theory until now. And maybe they are right, I can’t say. But you should know that there is another school of thought about what causes chronic wasting disease in deer.

A few scientists are conducting alternative research. The most prominent is Dr. Frank Bastian, a pathologist at Louisiana State University. He argues that a unique super-bacteria known as spiroplasma causes transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as CWD.

He has been saying that for a long time. Way back in  2007, Bastian injected strains of spiroplasma into laboratory deer, sheep and goats. Some of the animals showed clinical signs of disease in just 1.5 months. One deer reportedly contracted CWD in 3.5 months, and all deer tested CWD positive in 5.5 months.

Bastian believes that prions are just a marker for diseases like CWD. Most recently, in 2017, Bastian published findings in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology, (a respected journal), where he was able to isolate spiroplasma from the brains and lymph nodes of CWD-infected deer.

What this means, we’re told, is that Bastian is now able to grow spiroplasma in a lab, which can have enormous ramifications for better understanding and managing CWD in the wild.

“We can now test susceptibility to drugs, and produce a killed organism to produce a vaccine that can be given to animals,” Bastian was quoted as saying on the Deer and Deer Hunting website last July. Bastian’s research, some say, may also lead to a test kit that hunters can use in the field right after harvesting a deer to determine if it has CWD.

To that end, leaders of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania report that they have entered into an agreement with LSU to support Dr. Bastian’s work. They say Unified will provide an undisclosed amount of grant funding to LSU to help pay for him to continue and complete his chronic wasting disease research.

In return, they say, LSU will provide the organization with “first stage diagnostic tests” for Pennsylvania hunters to test deer in the field after harvest for chronic wasting disease infection. Will other sportsmen’s groups around the country follow Unified’s lead?

It will be interesting to watch how the Pennsylvania Game Commission, other state wildlife management agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the scientific community in general react to this promotion of the alternate theory about CWD being caused by super bacteria and not prions.

So far, apparently, they have carefully ignored it. But with so little progress being made in reining in the disease steadily spreading through North America deer and elk herds, perhaps it is time for a fresh look at the culprit spreading CWD.

Categories: Bloggers on Hunting, CWD, Pennsylvania – Jeff Mulhollem, Whitetail Deer

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