TSEs Touch Off
This U.S. cow and others
like her are safe from mad
cow disease (bovine spongiform
encephalopathy) thanks in
large part to ARS research on
the disease and other transmissible
A year ago this month, a group of ARS
scientists and technicians gave up their Christmas time off and even
delayed family vacations to provide characterization of the first case
of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)commonly called mad cow
diseaseto be found in the United States.
On December 23, 2003, a Canadian cow shipped to slaughter from a farm
in Mabton, Washington, had come up presumptively positive for BSE in
testing by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS),
which has diagnostic responsibility and regulatory oversight for BSE
issues. APHIS had already used the "gold standard" diagnostic
immunohistochemistry test, which was originally developed by ARS. But
for the first U.S. case of BSE, APHIS wanted additional scientific information
that could be provided by the Western blot test.
So APHIS put in a high-priority call to veterinary medical officer
Juergen Richt and his colleagues at the Virus and Prion Diseases of
Livestock Laboratory, which is part of ARS's National Animal Disease
Center (NADC) in Ames, Iowa.
In Pullman, Washington, ARS
researchers developed the
first practical live-animal
test for scrapie, the TSE
that afflicts sheep.
"We had experience with the Western blot test and we had all the
reagents on hand," explains Richt. "So we put our holiday
plans on hold and got everything ready so that APHIS would have verification
of the results from the immunohistochemistry test."
On Christmas Eve, Richt and lab technicians Semakaleng Lebepe-Mazur
and Deborah Clouser provided APHIS with a report, 22 long hours after
the samples arrived in Ames. ARS veterinary medical officers Robert
Kunkle and David Alt and technician Dennis Orcutt provided additional
DNA sequence information, confirming that the tissue samples actually
came from a cow and not a sheep, deer, or other animal.
Then on December 27, APHIS contacted Will Laegreid, animal health research
leader at ARS's U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) in Clay Center,
Nebraska, to orchestrate DNA testing and analysis to trace the origin
of the BSE-positive cow. His group had previously developed bovine DNA
markers for identifying animals that could be used for epidemiological
traceback. MARC teams worked around the clock preparing DNA samples.
Late on New Year's Eve, after the last critical tissues arrived, the
processed samples were driven to the first of two independent, certified
laboratories for genotyping. Within days, MARC analysis of DNA evidence
confirmed the positive cow was of Canadian origin.
accumulate in the brains
of host animals. Here,
veterinary medical officers
Robert Kunkle (left) and
Amir Hamir examine prion
distribution in brain tissue
of TSE-affected animals.
A Mysterious Enemy
Conducting such urgent testing is not a usual part of ARS's work, but
very little is usual when it comes to the enigmatic class of animal
diseases called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). These
diseases are caused by abnormal prions.
Normal cellular prion proteins occur naturally in many tissues, including
brain and other nerve tissue, but their functions are not well understood.
These normal prion proteins can change and aggregate to form disease-causing
The prevailing theory is that prions change their shape and fold into
an abnormal form that accumulates in the brain and causes lesions. If
the abnormal prions are transmitted from an afflicted animal to a new
host, they may cause the new host's prions to begin folding abnormally.
A Western blot analysis
done by technicians Deborah
Clouser (sitting) and
was crucial in tracking
the first U.S. mad cow
Discovery of these prion traits has altered the accepted scientific
ground rules for what can cause disease. Prions do not contain DNA or
RNA as do fungi, bacteria, viruses, viroids, or any other previously
known infectious entities. They are simply proteins, and proteins had
not been believed to be infectious on their own.
BSE itself is a fairly new disease; it was first diagnosed in 1986
in Great Britain. The disease has cost the European Union livestock
industry at least $107 billion as of this writing. USDA has maintained
an aggressive import exclusion and surveillance program since 1986 to
minimize the spread of BSE. As of this date, only one imported BSE case
has been found in the United States.
Three other animal prion diseases are known today: Scrapie, which affects
sheep and goats, was first recognized in Great Britain more than 250
years ago. The disease did not appear in the United States until 1947,
when it was found in a Michigan flock. Transmissible mink encephalopathy
(TME) is a rare illness that affects mink. It too was first detected
in the United States in 1947, on a mink ranch in Wisconsin, and on ranches
in Minnesota and Idaho in the 1960s. Epidemiologic data from these outbreaks
trace the cases to one common purchased food source. Since then, TME
outbreaks have also been reported in Canada, Finland, Germany, and the
republics of the former Soviet Union.
Histotechnologist Jean Donald
sections of tissue collected
from TSE-affected animals.
The sections are then
mounted on glass slides,
stained, and examined by
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a TSE of deer and elk. CWD has been
reported in free-ranging mule deer, white-tailed deer, and Rocky Mountain
elk in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, New Mexico, Utah, Wisconsin,
Nebraska, and Illinois; and in game-raised elk in South Dakota, Kansas,
Montana, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The
disease has also been found in game-raised elk and a few free-ranging
deer in Canada.
ARS has one of the world's most comprehensive research programs investigating
TSEs. It is the only organization studying all four TSEs in animals.
ARS is taking a very integrated approach to TSE research, with collaborative
projects involving many disciplines and scientists. While each TSE is
unique in many respects, there is so much to learn about prion diseases
that what researchers learn about one TSE may give insight into another.
At the ARS National Animal
Disease Center in Ames, Iowa,
animal caretaker Gary Hansen
tends to two jersey steers.
The steers are used as controls
in a CWD cross-species transmission
experiment in which cattle were
inoculated intracerebrally with
CWD-infected brain tissue.
Now-retired ARS veterinarian Janice Miller developed the first immunohistochemistry
method for diagnosis of scrapie in sheep in 1993. This test was much
more specific and less burdensome than any other at that time. In 1998,
ARS microbiologist Katherine I. O'Rourke at the Animal Disease Research
Unit in Pullman, Washington, further increased the test's specificity
and ease of use by incorporating monoclonal antibodies. Use of these
monoclonal antibody reagents was then broadened to be able to diagnose
the other TSEs.
Later, O'Rourke had a real breakthrough when she discovered that prions
collect in pockets of lymphoid tissue in a sheep's nictitating membrane,
or third eyelid. A veterinarian can take a sample of the tissue with
only a local anesthetic, which meant that there was finally a practical,
live-animal test for scrapie. This live-animal test is now an approved
diagnostic test for scrapie in the United States.
Chemist Chris Silva (left)
and research leader J. Mark
Carter load samples for
analysis via nanospray liquid
chromatography coupled to mass
spectroscopy. This state-of-the-
art technology characterizes
BSE prions with unprecedented
A very rapid, ultra-sensitive test that could be used before animals
show any symptoms, especially with BSE in cattle and CWD in deer and
elk, is still a major research goal.
One approach being taken today by ARS chemist Bruce C. Onisko at the
Foodborne Contaminants Research Unit in Albany, California, is use of
mass spectrometry to identify extremely low levels of prions. Mass spectrometry
reveals structural information from biological compounds by ionizing
a molecule of interest, fragmenting it by collisions with an inert gas,
and then applying mass analysis to the fragmentation products.
"Antibodies only let us find prions in amounts greater than 1
picomole. For live-animal testing we need to be able to reliably and
quantitatively detect concentrations 3 to 4 orders of magnitude less
from easily obtainable tissues," explains Onisko. "And we
need to be sure we are looking at only the abnormally configured prion
Cattle, deer, sheep, racoons,
mice, and elk, like the one
shown above, are being used
in ARS studies on transmissible
Such a sensitive test would help diagnose animals with abnormal prions
before they start showing clinical symptoms. ARS has now applied for
a patent for a new diagnostic test based on this technology.
ARS chemist Christopher J. Silva, also at the Foodborne Contaminants
Research Unit, is using mass spectrometry to develop a way to test feeds
for the presence of animal materials.
"A test for the presence of prions in animal feed is problematic.
Epidemiologists in the United Kingdom showed that prions are not evenly
distributed in animal feed, so an analytical sample might not be representative
of the whole feed lot. Furthermore, could such a test be sensitive enough
to detect rendered prions?"
A sensitive new technique to
detect animal products in feed
will help formulators and
livestock owners identify
feed containing only vegetable
ingredients. The test's inventor,
chemist Chris Silva, weighs
potential feed materials before
Instead, Silva's work on detecting the presence of prohibited animal
materials in animal feeds would serve as an important indirect test
for prions. BSE is transmitted to cows through feed containing animal
parts from prion-infected cows. Using prohibited animal materials in
cattle feed has been outlawed to prevent BSE transmission. "But
it would be nice to have a way to double-check that feed is free of
prohibited animal materials (and prions), should contamination ever
be suspected," Silva says.
Another major question that ARS is studying is whether and how TSEs
spread between animals, either of the same species or different species.
BSE is not communicable from animal to animal except through the recycling
of bovine protein, which is now banned. Transmission from cows to humans
appears to require contact with specific infected tissues. Routes of
transmission have not all been firmly established, but the oral route
is most likely.
Biologist Larry Stanker
(standing) and chemist
David Brandon review results
of a rapid immunoassay.
They are developing new
technology for sensitive
detection of BSE, surrogate
markers, and risk factors.
|Meat from BSE-infected cows has
not been shown to be infectious or associated with transmission. Exposure
in people is most likely through consumption of meat products contaminated
with central nervous system tissue. Since 1990, 157 people worldwide are
believed to have contracted the abnormal prion-related disease called
variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from consumption of BSE-contaminated
Scrapie, on the other hand, has never been found to cross from sheep
to humans, according to Donald P. Knowles, Jr., research leader at the
ARS Animal Disease Research Unit, in Pullman. ARS has found that scrapie
from North American sheep, when transmitted to cows by intracranial
injection, induced a spongiform encephalopathy with subtle microscopic
lesions that didn't mimic BSE and the accumulation of protease-resistant
prions. But oral inoculation of cattle with scrapie of North American
origin didn't result in any detectable lesions or prion accumulation.
Now, Knowles, Janet Alverson, an ARS veterinary medical officer in
Pullman, and Robert D. Harrington, a veterinarian and clinical instructor
at the University of Washington Medical School in Seattle, are seeing
whether CWD can infect mink. Mink were challenged 1 year ago both orally
and intracranially and are under observation for clinical signs.
Most cross-species infection studies begin with intracranial injections
of infected material, which is, of course, not a transmission route
that could occur naturally. "But we do intracranial inoculations
as a positive control for infectivity. If you can't establish a TSE
in a species by intracranial injection, you aren't likely to see it
spread any other way," says Knowles.
Scientists at NADC, including Kunkle and ARS veterinary medical officer
Amirali N. Hamir, are involved with studies that will eventually check
for possible cross-species transmission with all three U.S. indigenous
TSEsscrapie, CWD, and TMEin a wide assortment of species.
(BSE is not considered indigenous in the United States since the positive
cow came from Canada.) NADC has the only biocontainment facilities for
working with large animals in which TSEs can take a decade to incubate.
"With these cross-species studies," explains Kunkle, "we
learn whether a particular TSE can infect a different species and what
it would look like clinically and pathologically if it did, and we build
a bank of tissue material to call on for future research."
Intracranial injections have been found to be able to transmit CWD
to cattle. "But it doesn't produce the same clinical signs as BSE,"
Kunkle says. "With the clinical and pathological information we're
developing, if CWD can be transmitted to cattle in a natural fashion,
we'll have a better ability to recognize it."
With CWD, the situation is especially complicated. Researchers are
not even sure yet how the disease spreads from deer to deer or elk to
elk. "We know you can put deer in a paddock that infected deer
have been kept in and then removed, and the new deer can become infected,"
says Kunkle. "But we don't yet know whether the prions are shed
in urine or feces or something else."
This is obviously different from BSE and TME, but then "prion
diseases are a very loosely knit family," he adds.
Another NADC project is to see whether reindeer and fallow deer can
become infected with CWD. APHIS is interested in this because these
animals may be co-located with farm-raised elk. The study with fallow
deer is already under way. Kunkle is also checking to see whether scrapie
can be transmitted to pigs by intracranial injection. "It's the
same type of basic and precautionary research," he says.
One of the biggest complications in TSE research is the incubation
periodthe length of time it takes from exposure until the animal
shows symptoms, proving that they have actually developed the disease.
Cattle, deer, and elk can take several years or more to show signs of
a TSE. To make research more practical, ARS is developing several promising
animal models that will have shorter incubation times.
One such model is a collaborative project ARS has begun with Harrington
and Knowles. They are developing a line of genetically engineered mice
that have an added elk or deer prion gene, making them more susceptible
to CWD. The team recently received a National Institutes of Health grant
supporting this work for the next 3 years.
"Since such mice may develop CWD in just 1 to 2 years, they would
be a powerful research tool," Harrington says. "It will let
us validate new diagnostic tests, hopefully give us clues to how CWD
is transmitted, and provide an alternative model to study molecular
mechanisms of the disease."
With so little known about exactly why and how prions become abnormal,
right now the best hope for controlling TSEs appears to be breeding
animals that are simply naturally resistant. In Suffolk and other U.S.
sheep breeds, O'Rourke has already found sheep with certain genotypes
that have very limited susceptibility to scrapie. And she's shown that
if an infected ewe is bred to a resistant ram, the lamb will have a
resistant genotype and be born free of scrapie.
Selective breeding for genetic resistance to the disease is a valuable
tool for the National Scrapie Eradication Program. Genotyping allows
infected flocks to be cleaned up while sparing 60 percent of the sheep.
The program also encourages producers to select for resistance and to
use scrapie-resistant rams in flocks that have risk factors for scrapie.
Genetic testing and selection, national sheep and goat identification,
regulatory slaughter surveillance of mature sheep, investigation of
exposed flocks by use of genetics and the third-eyelid test, cleanup
of infected flocks, and the Scrapie Flock Certification Program provide
an integrated strategy to eradicate scrapie from U.S. sheep and goat
ARS researchers, including O'Rourke, have also been conducting genetic
surveys to determine whether there is variation in the prion genes of
other species that might identify susceptible and resistant animals.
The makeup of a single amino acid sequence appears to be the difference
between an animal that's likely to have its prions altered and one that
When O'Rourke and Alverson began examining deer and elk for genetic
susceptibility or resistance to CWD, they discovered an unusual situation.
They found that deer may have four copies of the prion gene rather than
the two that would be expected.
"Virtually every mule deer we examined had the gene in duplicate,
although only 15 percent of the white-tailed deer have the extra set,"
O'Rourke explains. "The extra set of prion genes is nonfunctional,
but it complicates genetic testing to identify what a susceptible or
resistant genotype might be."
So far, it is unclear whether there is any natural resistance in deer
or elk populations.
ARS scientist Michael P. Heaton and his co-workers at MARC have recently
identified extensive nucleotide variation in the prion genes of U.S.
cattle, sheep, and deer.
"This information provides new DNA markers for researchers interested
in genetic epidemiological studies of prion diseases. For example, if
susceptibility alleles are identified in other populations of cattle,
we will immediately know the proportion of U.S. cattle that is most
genetically vulnerable to prion disease," Heaton says.By
J. Kim Kaplan,
Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Animal Health, an ARS National Program
(#103) described on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
To reach scientists in this story, contact Kim
Kaplan, USDA-ARS Information
Staff, 5601 Sunnyside Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705; phone (301) 504-1637,
fax (301) 504-1648.
"TSEs Touch Off ARS Research" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.