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Research Partner Award Winner - 2008

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Research Partner of Year enables chronic wasting disease research

By Steven L. Miller, Senior Editor
Office of Communications and Technology

Morris Animal Foundation's support to University of Wyoming College of Agriculture scientists has allowed study of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in white-tailed deer and has earned the organization 2008 Research Partner of the Year honors.

"We are honored to receive this award from the University of Wyoming and are proud to partner with you to provide a healthier tomorrow for companion animals and wildlife," says Kristin Benjamin, spokesperson for Scientific Programs and Advancement at Morris Animal Foundation (MAF).

In 2008, nearly 50 of the world's most respected animal health research institutions, colleges of veterinary medicine, and zoos are conducting more than 150 MAF-sponsored studies and 43 veterinary student summer research projects, according to MAF, which is based in Denver, Colorado. Since its founding in 1948, the foundation has funded more than 1,400 studies.

Associate Professor Todd Cornish in the Department of Veterinary Sciences has received two grants totaling $222,000 to study the mysterious CWD disease. The research also involves study by doctoral student Dave Edmunds in the department.

"The project was peer reviewed and deemed to be of very high scientific soundness and relevancy to not only white-tailed deer endemic to the area but to all cervids throughout North America threatened by CWD," says Benjamin.

"MAF's interest in wildlife health began in the late '60s with the very first study focusing on infectious diseases in captive wildlife," she says. "Infectious disease has continued to be our largest funded priority area for wildlife since then."

The first grant to UW is to study how CWD affects deer behavior including migration, dispersal, habitat selection and use, daily activity, and survivorship, says Cornish. The second grant, a fellowship training grant, supports the research of Edmunds, who is working on a Ph.D. in animal and veterinary sciences.

CWD is a chronic, fatal disease of white-tailed and mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, and moose. It belongs to the group of diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), which are thought to be caused by prions.

A prion is a microscopic protein particle lacking nucleic acid. It is thought to be the infectious agent responsible for CWD, the other animal TSEs (including scrapie in domestic sheep and bovine spongiform encephalopathy [BSE], also known as "mad cow" disease, in cattle), and other degenerative diseases of the nervous system.

There is no evidence CWD is transmissible to livestock.

Cornish served on MAF's Wildlife Scientific Board for four years, completing his last year (2005-2006) of the board as chair.

MAF fills an important niche in animal disease research funding, says Don Montgomery, head of the Department of Veterinary Sciences.

"One focus area is wildlife disease, and another has been support of research for companion animal diseases including horses," says Montgomery, who is also director of the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory. "There are few other sources of funding, outside of diseases with a human health slant, for the important maladies affecting companion animals."

MAF is the largest independent funding agency for both domestic (companion) animal and wildlife health/disease studies in the world, adds Cornish, "and it's all based on donor contributions and some very elegant financial management on their part."

MAF calls for traditional pre-proposals in the fall of each year but may also seek out specified research throughout the year ("out-of-sequence").  "Traditionally, we send out a call for pre-proposals with areas of priority interest stated," notes Benjamin. "However, we will entertain pre-proposals in areas outside those listed. We also seek applications for donors with specific areas of interest they have pledged to fund."

Benjamin lists to-the-point criteria for funding: "Scientific soundness, relevancy, humaneness, anticipated outcomes, cost effectiveness."

Proposals are reviewed by three volunteer scientific advisory boards (small animal, large animal, and wildlife). There are 23 board members who serve four-year terms. "These board members are appointed by their peers and are well established, highly respected, experts in their field," she notes.

UW scientists will glean behavior characteristics of white-tailed deer by using radio collars, including Global Positioning System (GPS) collars. Whether or not CWD is having long-term effects on this deer population will be determined using survival data, reproductive data, and mathematical modeling, Cornish says.

He says the genetic study is relatively simple. "There are genotypes of white-tailed deer that are more resistant to CWD (they survive longer with the disease), and we're testing the genotype of each deer to determine their status, relating this to CWD status (positive or negative), trying to confirm they do live longer (and thus, potentially, contribute to the population more significantly via reproduction) and if there is any selective pressure from CWD to increase this genotype in the population."

Cornish says the bulk of the work is by Edmunds, of Roanoke, Virginia, and it will comprise his Ph.D dissertation. Edmunds wrote the fellowship grant himself, per requirements, and was funded successfully from a very competitive graduate student/trainee pool.

"It is quite an honor in the wildlife disease field to be recognized and awarded in this manner," says Cornish, "and this is the only significant source of funds available consistently to train wildlife disease professionals and thus, kudos to MAF for this effort."

MAF has a definition of research success. "Our funding should bring about new  veterinary medicine knowledge in general, early diagnostic tests, more effective preventions and treatments, and successful assisted reproduction for endangered species, etc.," says Benjamin.

"In addition, we are working hard to train the future companion animal and wildlife health researchers to cover the impending shortage," she continues. "Too few veterinarians and animal health scientists are entering the academic research field.  Saddled with very high college debt, they can make more money out in private veterinary practice or the biotech industry."

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