FORT COLLINS – The first load of elk brains and lymph node tissue to be tested for chronic wasting disease has landed at the diagnostic laboratory at Colorado State University.
“We received 300 samples last night and 400 this morning,” Barb Powers, the veterinary lab’s director said Wednesday.
“We have six to seven people handling samples – as well as their regular duties – and we were here after midnight last night, came back early this morning and are working through the lunch to keep up.”
Chronic wasting disease is an always fatal brain malady in deer and elk.
There is no proof that CWD is a risk to human health, but hunters who are concerned about the possibility are being asked to have their animals tested so they can decide whether to eat it. The testing is mandatory in the disease’s endemic area of northeastern Colorado.
The state is prepared to test as many as 50,000 animals during this fall’s hunting schedule. The wildlife division hopes the testing will provide a clearer picture of the disease’s prevalence across Colorado and reassure hunters.
“So far 1,469 samples taken during archery and muzzleloader seasons have been tested, and they found 18 hunter-killed positive animals and two our officers killed,” said Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the wildlife division.
The newly arrived samples are from the limited elk hunt that concluded Wednesday. The first combined rifle hunting season for deer and elk begins Saturday.
At the CSU lab, the testing process is divided into tasks. In one room, lab assistant Amber Folger sorts a couple of dozen Ziploc bags filled with individually wrapped elk tissues collected by wildlife division employees and veterinarians around the state.
“My job is to record the DOW number (of the animal killed and tagged) and our number in the computer so when the sample goes through, it can be tracked back to the hunter,” Folger said.
Next comes one of the most delicate procedures. The samples must be sliced to 200 milligrams – a microscopic sliver – so they can be analyzed.
Powers’ husband, Charles Hivler, a professor emeritus in pathology who once headed CSU’s wildlife disease center, has been pressed back into service because of his expertise in cutting tissue.
“I have to take between 180 and 220 milligrams, which are cut by these razor blades and weighed on these scales,” he explained while cutting a small piece of tissue with the precision of a diamond cutter.
“Once I get everything set up, I can do about 40 cuts an hour.”
Next they go to Kathi Wilson, another lab tech who puts the tissue in a centrifuge where it’s spun into a liquid, purified, incubated over a four-hour period and placed in an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) reader that indicates which samples are positive of the disease and which are negative.
“So far the ELISA has been 100 percent accurate,” Powers said. “So we can turn out a test within one day rather than five days as we had to under the standard system and can let hunters know within a week, rather than months, if the animal is negative.”
There are two other such laboratories run by CSU in Grand Junction and Rocky Ford, but Powers said they will receive only 300 brain samples a day with everything else coming to Fort Collins.