Alberta's dedicated research steps closer to dealing with prion diseases

Though there is still much to know about prions and prion diseases, we’ve come a long way since the first case found of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a domestic cow in Canada, and the launch of the Alberta Prion Research Institute.

“I think we have come quite a ways,” says Kevin Keough, executive director of the Alberta Prion Research Institute in an interview with RealAgriculture. “We don’t have solutions – that is, i can’t tell you tomorrow how to fix one of these unusual diseases – but we know a heck of a lot more about them… I think we’re a few steps closer to being able to deal with these diseases in new and different ways.”

The Institute, formed in 2005, is responsible for vetting research applications and providing funding research and development around prions and protein misfolding.

The government of Alberta initially provided $35 million in funding over seven years, adding $15 million in 2012, and 27.5 million for 2015-2021.

 Hear RealAgriculture’s Shaun Haney in conversation with Kevin Keough, executive director of the Alberta Prion Research Institute.

According to Keough, the Institute is learning a lot about chronic wasting disease (CWD) as well, with the goal of better understanding how to diagnose, treat and manage the disease on the landscape.

“It’s primarily a wildlife disease, which is massively infecting wildlife in many places,” says Keough. “There is some concern that that disease can transfer to other animals such as cattle; some concern – because we don’t yet know enough yet – that it can transfer to humans, like BSE did in rare cases.”

CWD has been confirmed present in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Quebec, and 24 U.S. states.

Prion disease research faces a host of challenges, including the very recent recognition of these diseases, the potential for “spontaneous” forms of disease, their ability to transfer through the gut into the brain, and the way they spread within their host.

“If you have a bacterial infection, you can attack the bacteria, or you can try to inhibit the bacterial growth,” says Keough. “You can’t inhibit the cell growth of a normal cell in your brain because you want to stop this agent.”

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