University of Alberta receives share of $2.9 million prion research funds

(Edmonton) University of Alberta researchers investigating prions and prion diseases have been included in a new national funding program supporting the work done at nine universities across Canada.

PrioNet Canada, a centre of excellence that distributes government funding for research into the transmissible and fatal neurological diseases of both humans and animals, handed out $2.9 million this week. Prion disease is an abnormal folding or mutation of normal cellular proteins in the brain. The cause isn’t known and there is no cure. 

The prion funding received by the U of A is focused on the neurodegenerative condition known as chronic wasting disease. It’s a transmissible disease affecting animals identified as cervids, members of the deer family.

Biologist Debbie McKenzie, from the university’s Alberta Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases, will focus on the structure of effected proteins. “In chronic wasting disease, the proteins fold in different ways and that structure may determine how long it takes an animal to get sick and how it transmits the disease to other animals,” said McKenzie. “Understanding that is fundamental to combating CWD.”

McKenzie’s research team received $300,000 from PrioNet.
Ellen Goddard, a researcher with U of A’s Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology, says there’s no evidence yet that CWD has been transmitted to humans and she wants to keep it that way. Goddard is co-lead of research team that will look into ways of managing chronic wasting disease in cervids in the wild and those fenced in on deer and elk farms.

“We have to find ways of managing CWD because right now there doesn’t seem to be a vaccine or other fix,” said Goddard. “We are looking at the impacts of CWD and its economic effect on tourism as it affects both hunters and families coming to enjoy the outdoors.” Goddard says managing CWD can include participation by hunters. “We ask hunters to donate the heads of deer kills and other cervids so we can monitor the herd conditions in certain areas. It’s a form of surveillance.”

PrioNet awarded Goddard’s group $600,000 over two years to conduct their research.

Goddard says the funding for all areas of study into CWD is very important. “The spread of CWD is inexorable. It’s in cervid populations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and there’s no reason yet why it won’t continue spreading eastward.”