UTIA Researchers Receive Federal Award to Develop Rapid Test for Early Detection of Chronic Wasting Disease

July 16, 2021

Eda lab student researchers Haley Channel (left) and Veronica Hafner (right), and research associate Jay Ramos (middle) are working to develop an antemortem test for detection of chronic wasting disease.
With increasing awareness of events that threaten public health, scientists are focused now more than ever on the mitigation of chronic wasting disease (CWD) which affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose. Similar to the United Kingdom’s “mad cow disease” outbreak in the 1990s, CWD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy caused by infection of animals and humans with the abnormally assembled prion protein. CWD-affected animals show clinical signs such as drastic weight loss (wasting), stumbling, listlessness, and other neurologic signs. CWD eventually causes the death of the affected animals. Even though there is currently no evidence of the transmission of CWD prion to humans, precautionary actions should be taken to prevent any potential risk to food safety and human health.

Chronic wasting disease is on the rise in the U.S. with presence in 26 states causing both ecological (decline in wild cervid population) and economic issues (game hunting and deer farming businesses). It was estimated that CWD’s economic impact on game-hunting and deer farming businesses is over $76M (Wisconsin only) and $230M (US), respectively. CWD is quickly spreading in Tennessee, and urgent management actions are imperative to minimize the damage due to the disease. Since there is no treatment or vaccine for the disease, early detection and management of CWD-affected animals is critically important for mitigation of the ecological and economical impacts of the disease.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture are providing Real.Life.Solutions to the threat of chronic wasting disease. Led by Shigetoshi Eda, Professor in the Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries department, the team received a phase 1 award from the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Detect to Protect Challenge – A Live Animal Test for CWD. The team previously invented a technology that they now are applying to develop a rapid test to detect prion proteins – the agent associated with CWD. This new test improves on the accuracy and time requirements of current testing procedures, and can be used on-site rather than requiring testing through a diagnostic laboratory.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommends game hunters to send tissue samples to a laboratory for testing and await results (sometimes taking several days) before they are able to consume the animal products.1 The UTIA team’s rapid CWD prion detection system promises to help meet the need for early diagnosis of CWD and will provide game hunters with rapid test results so they can determine whether their product is safe for consumption. Additionally, with early detection, scientists will have increased understanding of where CWD is present and will be better positioned to implement management actions to reduce potential animal and human health risks. The rapid CWD prion detection assay would also help deer farming businesses through providing a timely diagnosis of the animals’ disease status on the farm or the animals that the business owner plans to bring into the farm.

Deb Miller, Professor in UT’s Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries department and Director of the UT One Health Initiative, supports Professor Eda’s research, not only to protect cervid populations, but to preserve balance within the ecosystem and thus our health. She states, “CWD prions are maintained within the environment, and thus it is important to be able to detect them in soil and plants, and for us to develop management strategies to contain them. Furthermore, on-site detection will be ground-breaking for other prion pathogens as well, some of which (e.g., BSE) are transmissible to humans, and many (e.g., BSE, Scrapie) of which have devastating economic impacts.”


This research is supported by funding from UT AgResearch, the UT One Health Initiative, and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Detect to Protect Challenge – A Live Animal Test for CWD.


Shigetoshi Eda, seda@utk.edu, 865-974-5800
Joseph H. Ramos, jramos5@utk.edu

The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture celebrates 50 years of excellence in providing Real. Life. Solutions. through teaching, discovery and service.

1 'Prevention' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 Oct. 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/prions/cwd/prevention.html