ST. PAUL — University of Minnesota researchers hope to augment their ability to test for the disease ravaging U.S. deer and elk populations to the point where they can successfully conduct several hundred of them within a two-day window.

Researchers developing what they say is an improved diagnostic test for chronic wasting disease can already complete approximately 104 tests every 48 hours, Peter Larsen, assistant professor at UMN's Department of Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences told state lawmakers on Tuesday, Sept. 1. With more testing equipment they may soon be able to complete up to 488 in that same span of time.

"As we acquire more equipment, if we hire additional staff, that can expand," Larsen said.

University officials' comments came amid a broad update on the regional spread of CWD, a fatal disease that affects the nervous system, heard by members of the Minnesota Legislature's joint-committee on environment and natural resources. The disease has been found in 26 states since it was first observed in 1967, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, and is monitored and tested for by state regulators in several different "zones" throughout Minnesota.

The disease is believed to be caused by prions, which are a "misfolded" type of protein. In animals infected with CWD, prions essentially replicate, which leads to brain issues that cause body dysfunction and, ultimately, death.

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The test being developed at UMN "involves placing suspected misfolded prions in a prion-rich solution, shaking and incubating the mixture to promote molecular interaction, and then monitoring for growth of misfolded prions," according to a university web page. The result is a more sensitive test that researchers say takes less time to conduct.

Larson shared Tuesday that the Minnesota Center for Prion Research and Outreach at the university has applied for additional grant funding from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, and that researchers are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to validate the test for use on farm-raised deer. The center is the only lab facility with the capability to conduct the test, he said.

But university officials hope to change that in the future by producing a field version of it.

Critical is that the test can be used on prion samples collected from both living and dead deer. Larsen said it can also be used to test blood, urine, feces and even soil for harmful prions, which can linger in the open.

The tests, which use a method known as real-time quaking-induced conversion, are not meant to replace the common CWD test, Larson said, which requires brain tissue taken from dead deer. Rather, he said, it could help to monitor specific herds with greater ease.

More than 90,000 deer have been tested for the disease by conventional means since 2002, according to the State Department of Natural Resources. Only 54 were confirmed to have positive cases of it.