U scientists test deer tissue for chronic wasting disease

Branden Peterson

Scientists in the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine have no shortage of work this year.

More than three months since Minnesota’s only case of chronic wasting disease was diagnosed, a large-scale collection of deer tissue gathered by state hunters and organized by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is nearing completion.

The samples are taken to the University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, where approximately 1,900 have been processed so far this season. Thousands more are waiting to be shipped to the laboratory.

Approximately 4,700 samples have been collected by the DNR since the Minnesota firearms hunting opener on Nov. 9, an amount slightly less than the original goal. DNR officials are hoping to gather between 5,000 and 6,000 samples during the state’s hunting season.

Tissue samples have been collected by the DNR, veterinarians and volunteers operating at 17 stations across the state where hunters can voluntarily submit samples.

Although the diagnostic laboratory and DNR partnership is new, veterinary medicine Dean Jeffrey Klausner said it makes sense.

“It’s been a great partnership,” Klausner said. “The health of wild animals has a strong connection with the health of humans.”

While the University analyzes thousands of deer samples, similar investigations for chronic wasting disease from Minnesota and other states are being conducted at the Department of Agriculture laboratory in Ames, Iowa.

But the laboratory ran short of federal funding recently, causing many of the samples to be transferred to the St. Paul laboratory until Congress directs more money into the Department of Agriculture’s project.

The unexpected change in Ames could double the original number of samples predicted to be tested by the University laboratory.

The laboratory, which processes nearly 300 samples daily, was recently granted accredited status, making it one of approximately 15 such labs nationwide.

Accredited status makes laboratory findings more official as a result of following the federal scientific investigation methods.

“It’s a very good thing for a program,” University laboratory director Jim Collins said. “It means our results are comparable with results around the nation because you have the confidence to know the results have met the requirements set.”

Accredited status also encourages the laboratory’s efforts to become a year-round research center for chronic wasting-related diseases, making it a rare facility focusing specifically on the disease.

The laboratory expects to analyze approximately 5,000 tissue samples from across the country annually. Investigations will concentrate on the disease’s spread in elk and deer, and a related disease found in sheep called scrapie.

Chronic wasting disease was first diagnosed in 1967. In late August, the first and only diagnosed case of the disease in Minnesota was discovered in an elk from an Aitkin County farm.

No evidence suggests chronic wasting disease affects humans.

Branden Peterson covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]