MN provides $1.8 million for CWD research and test development

June 12, 2019

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA, JUNE 11, 2019 --- With Governor Walz’s signature, just over $1.8 million will flow from the Minnesota Environmental Trust Fund to support the development of a rapid and reliable diagnostic test for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). If successful, the two-year effort will lead to a portable device capable of field testing a variety of samples for the presence of CWD. This rapid, field-based test would revolutionize efforts to control the contagious and deadly neurodegenerative disease that is spreading through Minnesota’s white-tailed deer population.

CWD is spread by misfolded prion proteins. Normal prion proteins help to metabolize copper and zinc. When they misfold, their structure changes and that can cause several fatal neurodegenerative diseases in humans and animals. CWD-causing prions are not alive and can only be destroyed with specialized equipment, which is what makes CWD so difficult to mitigate

At its core, the project hopes to create a test that can reliably identify the presence of CWD prions in samples from hunter-harvested deer, living deer, and the environment. Current gold-standard tests largely require tissues from deceased animals, and can take several days to complete.

“We will leverage emerging biosensor technology to develop a prototype for rapid CWD diagnostics ,” says Peter Larsen, PhD, “creating a relatively simple-to-use test that can identify CWD prions in a variety of samples. This would be an enormous leap forward in the battle against this emerging disease. We envision a diagnostic test that delivers results within minutes or hours rather than days.”

Larsen was recently hired as part of the Agricultural Research, Education, Extension and Technology Transfer Program (AGREETT) and is part of a team of University of Minnesota faculty working on the project. As an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, Larsen is lending his expertise in evolutionary biology, genomics, and bioinformatics to the multi-disciplinary group. The team also includes faculty with expertise in prion diseases (Davis Seelig, DVM, PhD, and Pam Skinner, PhD), diagnostic testing (Jeremy Schefers, DVM, PhD) and the engineering of miniaturized devices for biological analysis (Sang-Hyun Oh, PhD).

“The Minnesota Legislature has helped us further our college's mission by supporting this work," says Molly McCue, DVM, MS, PhD, interim associate dean for research at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. "They have emboldened our talented researchers to help solve some of the issues faced by Minnesota, and we are incredibly grateful for their investment in our work.”

To achieve success, the project will utilize a two-pronged approach that will identify biomarkers specific to a CWD infections and extract and enrich CWD prion proteins for diagnostic testing. Novel tests stemming from the research will be validated in cooperation with the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which will play a key role in making sure the test is reliable and accurate. The UMN team will work closely with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) throughout the process. The MN DNR has already contributed a substantial biobank of white-tailed deer tissues for CWD diagnostic test development.

CWD has spread across the central United States over the past 50 years and is currently found in 26 states. It’s also found in Canada, several Scandinavian countries, and parts of Asia. The transmissible neurological disease produces small lesions in an animal’s brain and often results in abnormal behavior, weight loss, loss of bodily functions, and death. CWD affects white-tailed deer, mule deer, red deer, sika deer, caribou, reindeer, elk, and moose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against eating meat from CWD-infected animals. 

CWD prions can persist in the environment for years—they can bind to soil and plants can absorb them through their root system. A CWD-infected deer has the potential to spread many prions into the environment, which can infect other deer. Infected animals can live for at least 16 months before dying, and their blood, tissues, and fecal material can remain a source of new infections for years after death. When an animal dies of CWD, the carcass is also a source for new infections. 


Peter Larsen, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. [email protected], 612-626-1694.