University of Minnesota developing faster test for fatal deer disease

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — As Minnesota’s archery deer season gets underway, hunters in the state’s hot zones for chronic wasting disease still have to wait days to find out if their venison is safe to eat. But the University of Minnesota is aiming to develop a better testing method within two years that could provide much faster answers.

The science for detecting the fatal brain disease is making progress, but lymph node samples must be sent out of state while they’re still viable.

“You don’t have the luxury of time to wait,” said Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The newly formed Minnesota Center for Prion Research and Outreach, known as MNPRO, is the university’s first step in developing real-time diagnostic tests to help stop the contagion, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Tuesday. The disease is caused by a prion, an abnormally shaped protein. While scientists say there’s no known case of the disease affecting humans, they recommend against eating meat from infected deer.

Since 2016, 37 infected deer have been confirmed in Minnesota. There are currently four control zones, mostly in southeastern Minnesota, where testing is mandatory and sampling stations have been established.

In June, the state approved funding for the university’s project, granting more than $1.8 million from the Minnesota Environmental Trust Fund to support the development of a rapid and reliable diagnostic test for CWD. The project also received about $200,000 from the state’s Rapid Agricultural Response Fund.

The university currently tests for CWD only in farmed deer, a laborious process using old technology that takes up to two weeks to get results. The DNR sends its samples of wild deer shot by hunters to Colorado for a three-day turnaround.

“I’d love to take a sample at a deer farm and know today that, yes this deer tests positive,” said Jeremy Schefers, a professor who runs the CWD testing lab. “Practically, if we’re going to measure this disease, we need better tools; we need quicker tools.”

MNPRO’s goal is to produce a hand-held device that would detect CWD prions in samples of blood, saliva, urine or deer droppings, rather than just lymph nodes