DON’T BET the back forty or even your worst deer rifle on this one, but a researcher claims to have found a previously undiscovered bacteria that’s the real cause of chronic wasting disease (CWD), fueling hopes for in-field testing and a vaccine.

Dr. Frank Bastian, a veteran neuropathologist formerly with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, said he’s proven a bacteria called spiroplasma to be the causative agent for CWD.

He was quoted in Outdoor Life magazine as saying past research showing the cause to be deformed proteins, called prions, was wrong.

“I’ve tested scrapie in sheep, CWD in deer and elk . . . the spiroplasma are there in every instance. Prions are not. They are the causative agent. And when you find the causative agent, and it’s a bacteria, you’re able to develop antibodies and treat that disease,” he said.

For the record, we have no independent verification of Bastian’s findings and there are a bunch of researchers urging caution. Even the National Deer Alliance and the Pennsylvania Game Commission have shared statements that cast doubt on the new findings.

“Decades of research have provided abundant evidence that prions are the infectious agent for CWD,” the commission said in a statement.

The topic goes far beyond saving deer and elk, for it is believed that humans have also been impacted by prions that are widely known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE).

The naysayers point to past studies that link CWD in deer and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans to similar prions, including one study that said any result proving bacteria as the cause has never been reproduced in a lab.

Enter Dr. Bastian, who claims to have been able to reproduce his results thanks to advancements in the way the bacteria is grown in a lab environment.

“I have grown the novel spiroplasma out of every sample of TSE-affected tissue I have tried,” Bastian told Outdoor Life. “I have grown it out of CJD-, CWD- and scrapie-affected tissues. Prion proteins are absent in 10% of cases of TSE.” 

The potential discovery and all the controversy is worth some attention because if Bastian is correct, it would be a total game-changer for how we deal with all similar diseases.

The discovery went viral recently after a video was released sharing statements in early February made by Unified Sportsman of Pennsylvania ecologist John Eveland.

“We are here today to announce that we have discovered the real cause of CWD, and that we will have a cure and field application in 12 to 18 months,” said Eveland. “We now are set on a path to end this disease and pending nightmare in Pennsylvania, across America and throughout the world.”

First discovered at a Colorado research facility in the late 1960s, CWD incidences are known to exist in 251 counties in 24 states and two Canadian provinces.

Based on past research, there is no known cure, no concrete evidence as to how exactly the disease is spread, and it is believed to be 100% fatal.

And right now, the only way to test for CWD is by studying the head and neck of a dead animal, which is effective but limiting.

Bastian’s research, if correct, could change all of that. It could lead to an in-field blood test where deer hunters could quickly determine if the spiroplasma bacteria is present. It could lead to a vaccine that would help deer farmers and may impact the wild herd, if we can figure out how to get them inoculated.

Maybe an oral vaccine such as the one I remember taking as a kid for polio, on a sugar cube, would work at deer feeding stations to vaccinate large portions of the wild deer herd?

I don’t know Bastian and I certainly know nothing of his integrity or his motives. The Pennsylvania group did not abandon him after he left the university over a patent dispute on his discovery. In fact, they are setting up a new lab for him in New Orleans this month so the research can continue.

But as a deer hunter, I know that an in-field test kit that allows hunters to immediately test dead deer before they touch or field-dress them would be of great value. Long-term, it could save the sport of deer hunting.

Game farms would find it extremely helpful to be able to test live animals for the spiroplasma bacteria while they are still alive, and prior to a purchase or relocation efforts.

At present, the scientific community is still labeling this potential discovery as a theory. It hasn’t been proven or verified, and not one wildlife agency in the country has come forward to vouch for it.

I’m keeping an open mind on this one. Just because other researchers have ruled out bacteria as a cause for CWD doesn’t mean Bastian is wrong. We don’t know how extensive the previous research has been on bacterial causes.

But there is also competition for research funds and revenues from new drugs that sometimes influence research priorities. It will take time for independent testing to confirm or refute his findings.

Wouldn’t it be a hoot to go from a baiting and feeding ban in CWD-affected counties to being asked by the state to feed wild deer with vaccine-tainted food?

Only time will tell whether this new theory is proven true by scientific standards. If the results can’t be replicated, we’ll know that someone jumped the gun. If they can be reproduced, the ramifications will be felt worldwide.

For the sake of deer and deer hunting’s future, I hope Bastian is right.