LANSING — One researcher’s work on a possible cure for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a transmissible brain disease affecting deer, elk and moose in 24 continental U.S. states, is stirring up controversy between the scientific community and wildlife enthusiasts.
What makes this research so contentious?
For years, CWD was believed to be caused by misfolded proteins called prions that are “no longer broken down by proteases” and clumped together before “poisoning brain cells and causing mammals to die,” writes Krysten Schuler of the Cornell University Wildlife Health Lab.
However, Dr. Frank Bastian, a former Louisiana State University clinical professor and neuropathologist, claims to have identified the true cause of CWD — a bacterium called Spiroplasma, which produces the prions generally assumed as the cause of CWD.
According to Bastian, he’s been able to isolate the bacteria and develop a culture in which the organism can grow. Additionally, Bastian said he’s created and tested the disease in normal animals such as sheep and goats, as further evidence that Spiroplasma is the causal agent in CWD-affected deer.
Adding even more debate to Bastian’s research — a supposed cure for CWD.
According to Bastian, he’s been able to grow the Spiroplasma bacteria in all of the forms of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE).
In doing so, a protective vaccine using his methodology would be able to “potentially protect animal populations,” he told Michigan Farm News.
“Ideally, if you have a protective vaccine, you can inoculate these captive populations such as zoos, deer breeders, cattle and so forth. ... We can do that,” Bastian said. “The major problem with CWD right now is it’s gone rampant. It could wipe out the entire wildlife population. I am talking about deer, elk, moose, so the hunting industry, the deer-breeding industry (are) in trouble.”
Despite Bastian’s optimism for a cure, there’s been considerable pushback from the scientific community.
Chad Stewart, deer, elk and moose management specialist from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said the proposed possible cure for CWD is “dominating the news (cycle) lately.”
That media coverage, said Stewart, has resulted in CWD being referred to as the “zombie deer” disease for what it is doing to deer and elk once contracted. This labeling — or sensationalism, as some experts put it — is also causing a lot of panic in the deer-hunting community.
“The Department (of Natural Resources) has known about Dr. Bastian’s work for some time now,” Stewart wrote in an email to Michigan Farm News. “The scientific community tends to regard this work as a minority view on CWD.”
Stewart added that this “work has never been replicated in a lab setting, so the claims are generally not supported by a majority of CWD experts.”
“I have found this rebuttal by another in the field extremely helpful in understanding the differences,” he said. “Because the claims are not supported widely by most experts, the DNR has not changed its view on the disease. If any information comes forward that proves counter to existing accepted theories, we will revisit our approach.”
Despite his findings, Bastian said state and federal “agencies are following the dogma, even though the prion theory doesn’t make sense.”
“After 40 years of researching prions, nothing has happened,” Bastian said. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel right now.”
As of January 2019, there were 251 counties in 24 states with reported CWD in free-ranging cervids, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to the CDC, there are nine Michigan counties with CWD reporting in free-ranging cervids: Clinton, Dickinson, Eaton, Gratiot, Ingham, Ionia, Jackson, Kent and Montcalm.
In 2018, the MDNR tested 26,284 deer for CWD with only 62 positive matches.
Like the DNR, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies states that CWD is caused by prions, not “alternative theories” such as bacteria.
Although the disease currently doesn’t affect humans, it’s still one of the most “wicked problems” Michigan has to deal with, said Bill O’Neill, deputy director for the DNR.
“We don’t have a good process forward,” O’Neill told attendees of the Lansing Legislative Seminar in March. “. … We’re not exactly sure of prevalence and spread — we’re starting to define what the prevalence is.”
According to O’Neill, CWD occurs in less than 1 percent of the deer population — but even that number “is too high.”
“Its existence is what the problem is,” O’Neill said. “While it’s been around for 20 years, there’s been very little research. So, Michigan really has been a leader since we’ve had CWD in the last decade. … Hopefully, at some point in the future, that research will give us a much brighter path forward, but at this point of time, I am not sure we have a path forward that will eradicate CWD.
“Nobody’s been successful at doing that, so we are working hard to figure out what we don’t know and put that into our administrative decisions.”
Elsewhere, Bastian, who is receiving funding from the United Sportsmen and Women of Pennsylvania to continue researching CWD, said agencies must be willing “to try” to replicate his findings in a lab setting.
“I’m not sure I’d say people aren’t trying,” Stewart countered, noting that there have been tests done on Spiroplasma that returned “negative” results.
WHAT’S BEING DONE NOW?
Currently, Stewart said CWD and tuberculosis are top priorities for the DNR.
“We have several graduate students working on the project, and have research ongoing in both the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula,” he said.
As far as a timeline for a cure, Stewart added: “There currently is none.”
“The hope is that the more that is learned about the disease … the more it begins to get recognized by the general public,” Stewart said. “Perhaps more research dollars and efforts go into understanding the disease, which will ultimately lead to a solution.”
Like Stewart, Andrew Vermeesch, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, said that “more research” is needed on CWD.
“While the work from Dr. Bastian is interesting and has gotten a lot of media attention, I think we must be cautious on basing management decisions on new theories that have not been thoroughly vetted,” Vermeesch said. “Regardless, one thing I think we can all agree on is … there’s still more we must learn.
“Until that time, we have to make decisions as a state with the best available science.”
In addition to researching CWD, the DNR is working with the Natural Resources Commission to evaluate the effects of Antler Points Restrictions (APR) on CWD management.
According to Stewart, “A decision by the NRC to implement APRs in part of the CWD core area will likely be made in July.”
*Tony Hansen, the digital editor of Michigan Farm News, helped provide information for this report.