Three research projects, including one to explore just how a misfolded protein can infect animals and cause fatal illnesses, have picked up a total $1.6 million in federal and provincial support.
PrioNet Canada, a nationwide network of researchers devoted to prion diseases, and the Alberta Prion Research Institute, a provincially-backed initiative, on Wednesday announced the funding for the three “large-scale” projects.
In the first project, Dr. Valerie Sim, an assistant professor in the University of Alberta’s department of medicine, is leading a team to help determine how the prion protein becomes infectious and causes disease.
Fatal and infectious in humans and animals, prion diseases are associated with a “sponge-like” degeneration of brain tissue. In some cases, such as BSE, prion diseases can spread from animals to humans.
Diseases caused by prions include transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), such as BSE in cattle, chronic wasting disease (CWD) in elk and deer, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans.
Normal prion proteins are found on the surface of the cells of both humans and animals. Prion diseases occur when the normal prion protein is “misshapen” into the infectious disease-causing form, called a prion.
According to a release Wednesday from the APRI, this project involves multiple disciplines, from “wet” lab research to computer simulations, to explore exactly how and why the misshaping occurs.
“A better understanding of this protein’s role in disease development is critical to develop new treatment approaches and may shed light on how other neurodegenerative syndromes, such as Alzheimer’s disease, occur,” Sim said.
In the second project, Dr. Norman Neumann, an associate professor in the U of A’s School of Public Health, is leading a team investigating CWD. The disease has “rapidly spread” through animal populations in several U.S. states and, more recently, Saskatchewan and Alberta, Wednesday’s release noted.
Current management strategies have proven “ineffective” at preventing the spread of CWD, the release said, so Neumann’s team will work to fill “knowledge gaps” about transmission of the disease, including when and how animals become contagious.
“Results of this research are key to help control the spread of CWD and minimize the potential impacts to both human and animal health,” Neumann said.
In the third project, associate professor Stephane McLachlan of the Environmental Conservation Lab at the University of Manitoba and his team are conducting a first-of-its-kind study of people who are “most vulnerable” to the adverse impacts of CWD.
“Although no evidence indicates whether or not CWD is transmissible to humans, it may still have severe socioeconomic consequences for hunters, for those in the tourism and nature industries, and especially for aboriginal communities,” McLachlan said.
For example, the release noted, many aboriginal communities are concerned about contamination and diseases of wildlife and therefore distrust the safety of wild food, which may undermine traditional livelihoods and lead to stress and compromised health.
Social scientists, wildlife biologists and veterinarians will work in “close partnership” with aboriginal communities in Alberta and Saskatchewan to study the biological, socioeconomic and cultural implications of CWD, the release said.
The project will also seek to address “communication gaps” regarding CWD among communities, experts and other stakeholders that may have “significant implications” for human and environmental health.
“Our research results will help provincial and federal governments create strategies to minimize the destructive impact of prion diseases on Canadians,” said Dr. Neil Cashman, scientific director of PrioNet Canada, in the release.
“We are proactively working towards eliminating the risk of future prion disease threats, and avoid a crisis situation similar to the one Canada experienced with BSE in 2003.”