CWD: A Possible Cure and The Human Impact

CWD. Chronic Wasting Disease. Think it doesn’t affect you? Think again! It turns out there is so much more to this disease than most hunters ever realized. New research takes it way beyond the world of hunting.  The new breakthrough discovery could very well lead to a cure for several major human diseases, as well. Now, tell me that’s not exciting.

First, let’s do a quick review of exactly what CWD is. Or, what we thought it was. For years it was believed that CWD was caused by prions. So, what exactly is a prion?

Prions are misfolded proteins which characterize several fatal neurodegenerative diseases in animals and humans. It is not known what causes the normal protein to misfold; the abnormal 3-D structure is suspected to confer infectious properties. The word prion derives from “proteinaceous infectious particle”. Wikipedia

Well, that may not explain it completely, but it gives you a little better idea as to what we are talking about. Now onto what CWD is. Chronic Wasting Disease is a TSE, or a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy disease. Basically, it is a disease that effects or erodes the brain, and thus has been dubbed by many as “Zombie Deer Disease”. Are the deer really turning into zombies? Absolutely not. But, it’s easy to see how the name was earned. Some of the symptoms of a deer afflicted with CWD include excess salivation, decreased appetite, extreme weight loss, drooping head and/or ears, excessive thirst and urination, listlessness, and teeth grinding. And, sadly, CWD is always fatal; there are no survivors. Alright, did any of those symptoms sound familiar to you? If you are a cattle or sheep farmer, they might. Have you ever heard of mad cow disease or scrapie disease? Well, guess what? They appear to all be one and the same.

Okay, so you have a little idea of what it is. So, how is it spread? The belief is that it is spread through feces, urine, saliva, or other bodily fluids and is transmitted from animal to animal. Many states have banned natural urine attractants, feeding, and the transfer of a deer carcass from one state to another. These steps are in hopes of stopping the spread of this deadly disease. Another step that has been taken to stop the disease has been killing affected deer and elk. However, CWD continues to spread and has become an epidemic in some areas. It is now in nearly 30 states, and if not stopped will eradicate our deer and elk populations. And, even worse, new research has found it in even more animals than originally thought.


Now, for the good news! A possible cure for CWD has been found. A public-private partnership was formed between the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania (USP) and Louisiana State University scientist, Dr. Frank Bastian. A very important press conference was recently held, announcing that through extensive research, Dr. Bastian has isolated the cause of CWD, and it is not prions as previously thought. So, what is causing this deadly disease? Bacteria. Yes, it is a bacterium known as spiroplasma. You guessed it, time for another definition:

Spiroplasma is a genus of Mollicutes, a group of small bacteria without cell walls. Spiroplasma shares the simple metabolism, parasitic lifestyle, fried-egg colony morphology and small genome of other Mollicutes, but has a distinctive helical morphology, unlike Mycoplasma. Wikipedia

Don’t worry, that’s the last one, I think. No promises, though; sometimes it’s just better to use the true technical definitions. Some things are just easier explained that way. What exactly does all of that mean? Well, simply put CWD is still a TSE; however, we now know that it is not caused by prions even though they are present in afflicted deer. And, most importantly, the discovery of the cause has led to a potential cure.

Dr. Bastian and the USP have developed a 3-step approach to curing CWD in the deer and elk populations throughout America. It will all start as a pilot program in Pennsylvania. This state has been hit hard by the CWD epidemic, and they have definitely put in the effort and earned the right to be the pilot state for what could be the most important development for the conservation of wildlife in decades.

Step 1 will be the development of a hunter’s test kit. This kit will allow hunters to test their deer in the field. So, this leads to another question. Can CWD be passed to humans through the consumption of contaminated meat? So far there are no known cases, but the bacterium has been isolated in monkeys that were fed contaminated meat. And, like they say, better safe than sorry. I personally have no desire to eat a diseased deer. You might be thinking it would be easy to tell just by looking at the deer. Right? Well, not really; the incubation period for CWD is 12 to 18 months, so they could be affected by CWD long before the symptoms ever show. The plan is to have the test kits ready for use within a year.

Step 2 expected to be complete in year 2 of the plan will be the development of an injectable vaccine to be used on captive deer and elk. And, step 3 is scheduled to be completed in year 3. This will involve the development of a nasal or oral vaccine which would be used to treat wild deer and elk. While all the details aren’t in yet, the news is very promising. Without a cure for CWD, the future of the deer and elk populations in North America are in extreme danger. And now with it being found in more and more of our wildlife, including moose, camels, mink, and big cats, the need is more crucial than ever.

Alright, now let’s take a look at the human side of this. TSEs also affect people. The most commonly known one is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Though it is the most commonly known one to medicine, it is also extremely rare in that it affects approximately 1 in one million people every year. CJD is a very aggressive form of dementia that ultimately leads to death. There is also a variable form of CJD (v-CJD) that has been linked to mad cow disease. That’s right, people who ate meat from contaminated cow meat developed a deadly TSE. How scary is that?!

I’m sure you’re wondering what this is leading to, so I’ll get to it. Dr. Bastian’s research has linked the same bacterium, spiroplasma not only to CJD, but also to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). This could potentially be one of the biggest medical breakthroughs in a long time. This is not to be taken lightly. The US government has pushed for a plan, and Dr. Bastian has put one together. So, this is how it is projected to look over the next 10 years:

  1. Develop and put hunter’s test kits to use
  2. Develop vaccines for captive and wild elk and deer
  3. Test effectiveness of vaccine in 5 years
  4. Develop and test a cure for CJD in 5-6 years
  5. Test the cure in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS in 6-7 years
  6. Have a cure for human TSEs in 8-10 years

This is amazing! Finding a cure for CWD would be big enough news, but the impact that this has on the human medical side is beyond belief. This shows how truly connected everything really is. Of course, there is a huge cost associated to the research, development, and the cure. The USP has set up a Go Fund Me page to help raise money for the program. The goal is to raise $3 million over the next 3 years. It is a lofty goal, but hopefully the importance of the research and development will be enough to get them there.

Whew! Long article, huh? Sorry, I normally try to keep the a little shorter, but this is such big news that I couldn’t help but to be excited! And, I wanted to try to cover everything. Believe me, it could have easily turned into a book…so again, sorry, but not sorry. We need to spread the word. Every hunter needs to have this knowledge! And, not only do we need to know it, but the whole world needs to know. Just imagine a cure for all these horrible diseases. Imagine healthy wildlife that flourishes. Imagine passing on the traditions to your children and your grandchildren.

Now, to end it. Close your eyes and imagine just the opposite. No cure for CWD and TSEs. No deer. No elk. No moose. No hunting. No meat on the table. Infected cows. Infected sheep. Infected humans. A lost tradition. A lifestyle gone. Death and disease all around with no hope. No cure. Can you see it? 

Let’s pray you never do.


To see the full press release on the new discovery, click here.

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