LARAMIE, WYOMING — Stacks of histopathologies — gray folders filled with the tissue of dead animals — litter the floor of Dr. Beth Williams’ office at the University of Wyoming’s State Veterinary Lab in Laramie. Crowded into the office with a computer and a microscope table, they leave little room for Williams herself.
morbid artifacts belie Williams’ warm personality, but the
cramped workspace, tucked in the back of the lab’s
second-floor coffee room, hints at her humble style. Williams gives
her colleagues as much credit as she gives herself for the work
that has made her a leading expert on chronic wasting disease
(CWD), the deer and elk disease that has sent shivers through the
West’s hunting and ranching industries (HCN, 10/28/02: Deer,
elk disease doesn't scare hunters).
Little is known about
CWD and the rogue proteins called prions thought to cause it, or
about the class of related diseases called transmissible spongiform
encephalopathies (TSEs): mad cow in cattle, scrapie in sheep and
Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans. But after the mad cow outbreak in
England was linked to over 130 cases of a variant of
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, fear that CWD might jump to
cows or even people became palpable. That fear has not yet been
justified, but CWD has put the brakes on the elk-ranching trade,
and wildlife managers continue to worry about the disease ravaging
In this climate of uncertainty,
Williams’ work has provided some of the only clear answers
about CWD, which has now been discovered in 12 states and two
Since they first diagnosed the
disease in 1978, Williams and her colleagues have been studying its
effects on cattle. In one experiment, five of 13 cows injected with
CWD developed the disease. But cows fed food made from CWD-infected
deer, and cows that simply share close quarters with infected deer,
have so far remained healthy.
While it appears that
cattle are highly unlikely to contract CWD, deer and elk herds are
vulnerable. In September 2003, Williams and Colorado researcher
Mike Miller published an article in the journal
Nature, warning that CWD could spread rapidly
among herds in the wild, especially where animal density is high.
Williams believes that contamination in the environment —
perhaps the feces and urine of infected animals — is an
important factor in the disease’s spread.
says she first "stumbled into" CWD work as a Colorado State
University graduate student in the 1970s. At that point, no one
knew why deer at a university research facility acted disoriented
and eventually died, literally wasting away.
confronted with deer that were dying before they should be,"
recalls Williams. "They were in captivity — were they
stressed? Was it nutritional? Maybe there was a toxin in the
environment? Trying to sort through all that, it was just a real
Williams noticed that the brains of infected
deer were consistently speckled with holes. That led her to connect
CWD with scrapie, the TSE that causes lesions in sheeps’
But Williams’ diagnosis went largely
unnoticed outside the wildlife-science community. The lack of
interest during the early years of her career stands in stark
contrast to the hubbub swirling around CWD today.
"It’s been a bizarre transition," she says. The mad cow
outbreak in England, and the discovery that eating contaminated
beef can cause a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans, "put
a lot of pressure on us — there were a lot of questions ...
the issue (of CWD) related to humans is a good one, with no
definite answers. There is still a mountain of work to do."
The discovery of mad cow disease in Washington last
December only points to the importance of the work that Williams
has already done. That has changed, and Williams’ work at the
lab is now partially funded by McDonald’s and the National
Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
CWD studies are
low-tech and time-consuming, partly because there is no analytical
test for prions in low concentrations or in soil and water.
Scientists can’t measure directly how CWD makes its way
through the environment; they have to wait for it to show up in an
One of Williams’ latest experiments is
designed to understand whether deer can get CWD by eating the feces
of diseased animals. After pulling on black rubber overboots,
Williams takes me to the Lab’s pastures to meet the
Wearing Wranglers and a sweater, her
straight, waist-length hair parted down the middle, Williams looks
the part of a Wyoming wildlife vet. Her affection for animals
shows: She calls out to the "girls," and walks up to pet the four
tame does on the nose and neck.
I approach the deer more
cautiously, less comfortable touching the potentially infected
animals. This is one of Williams’ biggest challenges as a CWD
researcher: dealing with public anxiety about this poorly
understood, devastating class of diseases.
‘unlikely’ mean?" Williams asks, referring to the
possibility that CWD could jump to humans or cows. "That’s
hard to quantify for people. Trying to talk to reporters, I say
this is a gray area."
The way Williams sees it,
explaining the amount of uncertainty in science is an essential
part of her job.
"There’s a real need for
scientists to get (their results) out of the lab," she says, "so
that the public can understand that things are never