A team of researchers at Colorado State University has been approved for a seven-year, $8.4 million grant to study chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain ailment of deer and elk that has spread across North America’s midsection in recent years. Scientists at the university’s Prion Research Laboratory in Fort Collins will attempt to determine how the abnormally-folded brain protein thought to cause CWD is passed from deer to deer, something 30 years of research has failed to uncover.

Progress in CWD research has been difficult because the infectious agent is a protein rather than better-understood bacteria or viruses. “We can’t use the same kind of technology we use to detect and understand viruses and bacteria,” said Dr. Edward Hoover, the lab’s director.

Since the disease takes years to develop in deer and elk, researchers will attempt to develop a mouse strain of CWD to compress the study of multiple generations in a shorter-lived subject.

Scientists will also evaluate the potential that CWD could jump species and, in their most daunting task, they will try to develop strategies that could be used to produce a vaccine.

“It is a scientific long shot and will take years because it is a long, slowly developing infection,” Hoover said. “We hope our research will be important to deer and to humans.”

The funding is part of $29.4 million in grants released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to research the family of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which includes mad cow disease and the human malady, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The CSU grant, administered by the National Institute of Health, is part of the 2003 budget and still must be approved by Congress.

Interest in the quirky disease once thought confined to Colorado and Wyoming has exploded in the last year as CWD appeared in wild deer from Wisconsin to New Mexico.

While there’s no evidence that CWD has ever infected a human, scientists can’t rule out the possibility that it could. As CWD continues its spread, answering that question has become a critical public health issue, according to Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories will soon begin feeding monkeys infected deer and elk meat to see if they develop infection.