Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan have been given a $1.2 million boost in their efforts to find solutions to threats posed by prion diseases.

The funding, provided by PrioNet Canada, is part of an $8 million total injection into 19 projects by 60 researchers across the country. The goal is to accelerate discoveries surrounding prion diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as mad cow), chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer and elk, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a variant human form of CJD acquired through the consumption of BSE-contaminated cattle products.

“Ultimately, these projects will translate to safer food, health, and environmental systems for Canadians,” PrioNet scientific director Dr. Neil Cashman stated in a news release about the funding announcements.

Prion diseases are untreatable, infectious, and fatal neurodegenerative diseases. Normal prion proteins are found on the surface of the cells of both humans and animals. Prion diseases occur when the normal prion protein is misshapen into the infectious disease-causing form. Research is still trying to determine exactly how the misshaping occurs. Prions represent a new class of infectious agents that cause disease because, unlike other viruses or bacteria, prions do not contain any DNA or RNA.

Dr. Andrew Potter from the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), based at the U of S, is heading up the work on developing a BSE vaccine for cattle. This vaccine would not only provide the first preventative treatment against BSE, but also considerable cost savings to Canada as current BSE-testing regimes are expensive and cumbersome. Furthermore, Potter’s research may lead to vaccines that will aid in the prevention of other prion diseases.

The other U of S project, intended to minimize the spread of CWD in wild deer, is being led by Dr. Trent Bollinger. To date, culling infected herds has been the main practice to try stopping the spread of CWD, but such efforts have not been successful. In addition, the persistent spread of CWD in wild deer leads to increased transmission risks to other species, like moose, or even humans.

Bollinger’s study will provide key data on movement patterns of wild deer in the environment and evaluate the effects deer culling and the presence of feed supplements have on the transmission of CWD in wild deer. This information will help shape policy and wildlife management strategies to reduce the incidence and spread of CWD.

The economic crisis resulting from the May 2003 discovery of a Canadian BSE-infected cow spurred the research. PrioNet Canada, established in 2005 through the federal government’s Networks of Centres of Excellence program, was created to position Canada as a world leader in prion disease research.