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When Hermann Schatzl could not find a disease he wanted to study in Europe, he came to the University of Wyoming.
A prion biologist who once worked with 1997 Nobel laureate Stanley Prusiner, Schatzl studies diseases that involve the abnormal folding of proteins in the brain. Those diseases include chronic wasting disease, a fatal affliction of deer, moose, and elk, and mad cow disease. Both are found in the United States, but not in Europe.
“I had some collaboration with people in Canada and the United States, and we studied chronic wasting disease, but it’s basically impossible in Europe,” he says. “By chance I heard about this possibility here, and if the mountain does not come to the prophet, the prophet must go to the mountain. There was a competition for candidates, and finally the decision was coming to me.”
Schatzl is a Wyoming Excellence Chair and a professor in the Department of Veterinary Science. He studied medicine at Ludwigs-Maximilians-University in his native Munich, Germany, specializing in the study of viruses. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, much research was dedicated to the emerging threat of HIV, and Schatzl participated in that research. But as time went on, he became interested in prion diseases, which don’t manifest themselves in symptoms until it’s too late.
Furthermore, he says because mad cow disease can transfer to humans, humans need to be prepared for the chance that chronic wasting disease also is contagious. With the state of Wyoming and the university devoting resources to this task, Schatzl says he’s in the right place to continue his research, which he started at the Technical University of Munich.
“As a long-term goal, my main challenge is to develop something that really helps to contain the spread of chronic wasting disease,” he says. “If it’s not transmitted to the human, it’s good, but in case it is transmissible, worst-case, you have to be prepared for mid- and long-term. It’s incredibly difficult to develop something that really helps, but there is some good indication in our animal models. So for many groups it’s worth it to try.”
While Schatzl says he enjoys teaching, his first year at UW (he came to Laramie in January) will be dedicated to building his laboratory—setting up the infrastructure, writing grants and gaining funding. He also says he hopes to explore the mountains a bit, which he admits was a small, positive factor in his decision to come to UW.
“I was raised in the countryside, so I like being outdoors,” he says. “I’m not doing sports as much anymore. I’m at an age where I want to do something else. I’m not the type who does research from 8 a.m. to midnight. Sometimes you have to take a break and relax.”
Content courtesy of UWyo Magazine.