Dec. 2, 2022

Veterinary Medicine prof receives $4.25M grant to develop tools to stop chronic wasting disease

Researchers and stakeholders partner with UCalgary to study deadly diseases affecting deer and elk
PhD student Irina Zemlyankina discusses immunoblot results with Dr. Gilch
PhD student Irina Zemlyankina discusses immunoblot results with Dr. Gilch Syed Rahil Tarique, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

A professor at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) has received a team grant of $4.25 million to develop mitigation strategies for chronic wasting disease (CWD), a deadly illness that impacts both farm and wild animals.  

CWD affects the brains of animals from the Cervidae family such as deer, elk and moose. “CWD is problematic because it’s caused by infectious pathogens called prions,” explains Dr. Sabine Gilch, PhD, an associate professor at UCVM and a Tier II Canada Research chair in prion disease. 

“They don’t have nucleic acid like a virus or bacteria, so you cannot easily detect them or make vaccines for them. CWD is contagious and spreads at an increasing rate among cervids in North America.”

The Alliance Grant was awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and is co-funded by the Alberta Conservation Association, Alberta Environment and Parks, Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment, Parks Canada, and ProMIS Neuroscience. 

Gilch and her team, which includes scientists from the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Centre/University of Saskatchewan, the University of Alberta, and the University of British Columbia, are partnering with provincial governments, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Indigenous communities, wildlife and hunter organizations, and private industry.

They plan on using the grant to uncover how best to mitigate the spread of CWD among deer populations and protect endangered caribou populations from contracting it. They hope to develop oral vaccines, new methods to decontaminate the environment where prions persist in the soil, and study genetic resistance, complemented by spread modelling and socio-economic studies. 

However, the team’s expertise is only one piece of the puzzle. “CWD is very interesting in that it affects very different areas of study, so it needs an interdisciplinary approach,” Gilch says. 

The partner organizations are actively involved in the design and scope of the study, with the intent of bolstering the research through diverse perspectives and areas of expertise. According to Gilch, “The scope of this grant goes beyond academia.”  

Animals aren’t the only potential stakeholders in this research. While the likelihood of CWD transmitting to humans is low, recent studies suggest it might be possible. But, even without such spread, Gilch says its effects on the economy and food supply chain can be disastrous due to trade restrictions in countries where CWD is endemic. The impact is even greater for rural and Indigenous communities that rely heavily on venison.

“The recommendation from Health Canada is to not eat meat from CWD-positive animals, but the higher the prevalence gets, the more animals that are infected with CWD, the less you can eat,” Gilch says.

Gathering insight from these communities and supporting their cultures is important to Gilch and her team. With such a large grant, the pressure is on for them to succeed, but she says she’s confident UCalgary’s leadership in research excellence will come to the fore.  

As for UCalgary, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is excited to see where Gilch’s research leads, says Dr. John Gilleard, UCVM’s associate dean, research. “This is a great example of the need for a transdisciplinary approach to tackle complex problems. Prion research is a major area of excellence for us. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was a major driver for the establishment of UCVM and now our prion research group have become international leaders in research on another increasingly important prion disease, CWD.”

A herd of deer stand together in the snow.

CWD is predominantly found in wild and farmed deer and elk populations.