Researcher: Iowa deer study linked to human health

Soruce: Des Moines Register

Tests conducted on some 400 deer from a north Iowa farm this summer might some day help doctors detect debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s in humans, a researcher says.

Nicholas Haley, a veterinarian at Kansas State University, is working to develop a test identifying chronic wasting disease in live deer, elk and moose. Now the testing must be done after the animals have died. The deer involved in the testing this summer were later destroyed.

State and federal agriculture officials, along with the herd’s owners, allowed Haley’s team to collect samples from the deer in late August before the animals were destroyed. The state said Thursday about 280 of 350 deer on the farm, quarantined for two years, tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

“These tests, and the approaches to these tests, can be used for human diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob or other similar diseases, and eventually it can be translated to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” Haley said. “They’re all part of the same family.”

Human diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob and animal diseases like chronic wasting and mad cow are caused by an abnormal protein called a prion that attacks the brain.

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s involve a different protein, Haley said. But “the scientific infrastructure that we use to develop these tests for chronic wasting disease probably can be directly translated for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

Carol Sipfle, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Iowa, said she is unfamiliar with Haley’s research. But she said providing Americans with earlier detection is crucial.

“Now the testing that’s done is a process of elimination,” after symptoms of memory loss or other problems begin to show up, Sipfle said. “If they can’t find anything that’s wrong, the doctor will likely say you have Alzheimer’s.”

The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s is expected to triple to 16 million by 2050.

“We’re going to support anything that advances research to prevent, treat and cure the disease,” Sipfle said

Haley said taking samples from the herd near Clear Lake was a unique opportunity for researchers.

Typically, state and federal agencies move “quietly and quickly” to destroy captive deer herds that have been infected by chronic wasting disease, he said.

“There’s not always a lot of information gained” from the depopulation of a deer farm, Haley said. “This farm in Iowa was different.”

State officials ordered the animals to be quarantined in 2012 after an infected whitetail buck was harvested in a hunting preserve in southeast Iowa.

Investigators traced the animal back to the farm in north-central Iowa.

The state ordered about 200 animals on the preserve to be destroyed, and the animals on the farm were quarantined. Officials have moved aggressively to prevent diseased animals from infecting wild deer.

The owners of the two facilities, Tom and Rhonda Brakke, have sued the state over its actions and requested compensation for the lost animals. The couple seeks $1.5 million.

The state agriculture department said federal assistance will help cover nearly $1.4 million, with about $917,000 compensating the couple for the loss of the animals at their farm.

The couple raised deer and used them at the hunting preserve. Hunters would pay between $2,500 to $12,000 for a buck, depending on the size of its rack.

The state requires deer killed in hunting preserves to be tested for chronic wasting disease.

Haley said the Brakkes pushed state and federal officials to allow him to get samples from the animals to further research into chronic wasting disease and potentially, human diseases.

“They wanted something to come out of having the animals destroyed,” Haley said.

Scott Kent, an owner of an Iowa deer farm and hunting preserve, said Haley’s research is important to help stem the spread of the disease and the loss of animals destroyed because officials fear they are infected.

Now an entire herd is destroyed if one animal is found to have chronic wasting disease, Kent said. Government officials move quickly to kill the animals and dispose of the bodies.

“No tissue samples are taken nor is any research conducted,” he said. “This is why little is still known about CWD even though it has been around for over 50 years.”

In the Brakkes’ lawsuit, the couple said the state spent more than $100,000 posting armed security “to monitor the perimeters” around the southeast Iowa preserve.

Haley said a test for live animals could be used whenever captive deer, elk or moose are bought and sold, just like screenings that cattle undergo for tuberculosis and other diseases.

It also could be used on wild elk, for example, when they’re moved to areas where populations have been thinned because of human pressures such as hunting.

Kent said captive deer farms often are blamed for the spread of the deadly disease, since the animals are in close proximity to each other.

The disease is spread through physical contact, but also possibly through indirect contact, such as feed or water sources that are contaminated with the prion, the Centers for Disease Control says.

More research also is needed to determine whether chronic wasting disease is always fatal, Kent said.

Haley said he has been informally sharing his work with researchers at the University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center. Full development of a chronic wasting disease test could be up to five years away.