SUNDAY, Dec. 21, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A new vaccine created to fight an illness similar to "mad cow disease" in deer might also protect livestock and even humans from similar brain infections, researchers report.
The vaccine appears to help prevent deer from becoming infected by the incurable brain disorder known as chronic wasting disease, according to the report in the Dec. 21 online edition of the journal Vaccine. Chronic wasting disease is caused by mysterious infectious particles known as prions that go rogue.
Prion infections are also thought to cause horrific human diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (including the strain behind mad cow disease), kuru (a condition that affects cannibals who eat human brain), and fatal familial insomnia (an inherited condition that leads to increasing sleeplessness and death), the researchers said.
"Now that we have found that preventing prion infection is possible in animals, it's likely feasible in humans as well," senior study investigator and neurologist Dr. Thomas Wisniewski, of NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City, said in an NYU news release.
Chronic wasting disease is common in North America's captive deer and in the wild. The disease also affects elk, caribou and moose, and scientists fear it could spread to livestock, especially cattle.
If further research confirms the vaccine's effectiveness, the study authors hope they can vaccinate a small number of animals, maybe 10 percent, and stop overall transmission of the disease, according to the news release.
For this study, the researchers gave five deer the vaccine, while another six received an inactive placebo. All of the deer were exposed to prion-infected brain tissue.
Monitoring over two years showed that all of the deer given the placebo developed chronic wasting disease. Four deer given the real vaccine took significantly longer to develop infection -- and the fifth one is infection-free, the researchers said.
"Although our anti-prion vaccine experiments have so far been successful on mice and deer, we predict that the method and concept could become a widespread technique for not only preventing, but potentially treating many prion diseases," said lead study investigator Fernando Goni, an associate professor at NYU Langone, in the news release.
For more about chronic wasting disease in deer, see the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance.