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Zombie deer disease: risks to humans studied

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Zombie deer disease: risks to humans studied

“The origin of CWD,” known as zombie deer disease, “is not yet fully understood. Regarding transmission to humans, there is currently no evidence to suggest a potential zoonosis.” This explains it Fabio Fashionresearcher at the Irccs Besta Neurological Institute in Milan, an expert in the field of human and animal prion diseases, who collaborates with the Norwegian Veterinary Institute (Oslo) and with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences on this very topic.

Besta is in fact one of the few institutes in Italy that deals with the study of chronic wasting of deer o Cwd, a degenerative neurological disease that affects cervids and which has aroused media interest in recent days following the discovery of the disease in 800 deer and moose in the state of Wyoming alone, news considered “a public alarm bell” in USA.

Zombie deer disease: what it is and why it can be risky for humans by Donatella Zorzetto 21 February 2024

There is currently no evidence to suggest that the disease has the potential to infect humans. So why bother with it? “There is the possibility that traces of prions associated with CWD may be present in meat intended for human consumption and that only with the amplification platforms active at the Besta Institute it will be possible to detect them”, highlights Moda.

The disease is also known and present in Europe, the IRCCS underlines: in 2016 it was diagnosed for the first time in Europe in a Norwegian reindeer and since then cases of CWD have also been identified in reindeer, moose and deer in Norway, Sweden and Finland. At Besta the working group led by Moda has been studying the pathology for some time. The biotechnologist researcher of the Complex Structure of Neurology 5 and Neuropathology directed by Bianca Pollo is involved at the forefront in various projects, financed in part by the Norwegian Research Council, which aim to use the institute’s highly sensitive analytical platforms for the study of Cwd.

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Together with fellow prion experts Federico Cazzaniga and Giuseppe Bufano, the team focuses on the distribution of the Cwd prion in the peripheral tissues of cervids and the possible transmission of the disease to other animals, in particular to sheep that share the same areas frequented by sick cervids. Moda actively collaborates with Sylvie L. Benestad of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute (Oslo) and with Cecilie Ersdal and Michael Tranulis of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, precisely to study these pathologies.

Chronic wasting of deer is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy caused by prions, misfolded proteins capable of altering the shape of normal variants of the same protein: their accumulation in the brain causes a degenerative disease of the central nervous system. The pathology makes cervids “drooling, lethargic and emaciated, causing a ‘blank look’ for which it is known as zombie deer disease”, explains Besta.

The DNA contained in the animal’s drool could pass from one animal to another, and even between deer and sheep, via blood or saliva. Prions are also known to be responsible for other conditions such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as ‘mad cow disease’. We therefore understand the importance of carrying out studies in this sector.

One of the most important research that Moda is carrying out with Benestad concerns the identification of peripheral biomarkers (blood and urine) that allow us to recognize sick animals, but which do not yet show clinical signs of disease. One of the crucial aspects of this research concerns the evaluation of the potential transmission of Cwd prions to humans.

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