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Study aims to curb threat of fatal disease in deer

Million-euro research project will focus on a progressive brain disease in deer, to inform strategies to detect and control infection.

Red reindeer
Scientists will seek to inform ways to detect and control infections in deer and related species.

Scientists are seeking to better understand the threat posed by an infectious disease affecting deer and related species such as moose and reindeer, to inform ways to trace and manage potential outbreaks on farms and in wildlife.

A team led by researchers at the Roslin Institute will investigate the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a condition similar to BSE in cattle, in European deer.

They will seek to inform efficient strategies to detect and control infections, and to determine what risks are posed by CWD – which involves misfolding proteins, or prions, in the brain – to farmed livestock and humans.

Researchers hope their findings can help prevent serious outbreaks of the deadly disease, which has become widespread in wild and farmed deer across North America, with small numbers of cases in Europe in recent years. Farmed animals affected by the disease have to be culled.

Infection data and genetics

The international team of scientists will seek to understand how the disease spreads, by studying details of cases in Norway and Sweden, such as location, age, and movements of affected deer, alongside data on deer populations in these countries.

Mathematical tools will be developed to guide disease detection and predict its potential spread, so that control strategies can be devised and tested.

Researchers will also seek to understand the influence of animals’ genes on their susceptibility to disease, including whether any major species of wild and farmed deer in Europe are less likely to be affected, or whether variants of particular genes may offer protection to some individuals.

Identifying genes that make animals more resilient to infection could inform selective breeding in farmed animals, or support research towards a vaccine.

Given major differences between the species of wild deer, their population sizes and distribution, habitat and management, lessons learned from incidences of disease in North America may not apply in Europe, so more research is needed, scientists say.

Spread between species

Scientists will also carry out tests to examine the likelihood of the disease spreading between farmed species such as sheep, cattle or pigs. This will involve studies in mice, and in laboratory tests that mimic transmission between species.

The characteristics of CWD cases in Europe are different from those in North America, suggesting that infection has not spread from imported deer, and that there are several different strains or types of CWD.

The three-year, €1.6 million project will be carried out in collaboration with the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, the Swedish National Veterinary Institute, the Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria (INIA) in Spain, the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE) in France, and the Friedrich-Loeffler Institut in Germany. It is supported by the International Coordination of Research on Infectious Animal Diseases (ICRAD), an ERA-NET co-funded under European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

We hope to shed light on how this disease could affect deer farms and wild deer populations – how infection occurs, how it spreads among deer and how it could potentially cross into other species. With better insight, we can identify useful approaches to monitor and limit the likelihood of costly outbreaks.

Dr Fiona HoustonRoslin Institute

** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **

Related links

New findings could help reduce spread of vCJD

Identification of prion diseases aided by novel marker

Dr Fiona Houston on transmission of prion diseases

Image credit: Amy Robinson