People who want to work with animals share some common career paths: veterinarian, pet shop owner, “zombie deer disease” researcher. Okay, the last one is a bit less common, but that didn’t deter Dr. Alicia Otero Garcia from taking the road less travelled in pursuit of her passion.
Born in Spain, Otero Garcia studied veterinary medicine in her home country and completed her Master’s in Veterinary Science. As she enjoyed the research element, she applied for a grant and spent the next four years pursuing a PhD in prion diseases that affect sheep and cows.
“Prion diseases are neurodegenerative diseases produced by proteins,” said Otero Garcia. “They are similar to Parkinson’s but are also transmissible and affect both animals and humans; for example, mad cow disease.”
Here to stay
As part of her PhD, Otero Garcia did a research stay at the University of Alberta’s (U of A) Centre for Prions and Protein Folding Diseases (CPPFD), in which she also studied prion diseases of deer called Chronic Wasting Disease (currently called zombie deer disease). She went on to complete her PhD at the University of Zaragoza in 2018 and began work as a post-doctoral fellow at the U of A the following year.
For Otero Garcia, her academic path to date has aligned closely with her interests. While her love of animals prompted her initial study of veterinary medicine, her focus on prion diseases stemmed from a genuine curiosity around the subject matter.
“I joined a research group in my faculty in Spain on this topic and found it fascinating, as a lot of things are not known about these diseases. They affect the brain, and I like everything related to neuropathology and how different agents can impact the brain and propagate, so I really fell in love with prion diseases.”
In her next endeavor, she applied her love and expertise to a project partly funded by Genome Alberta entitled “Systems Biology and Molecular Ecology of Chronic Wasting Disease”. This collaborative effort involving several Alberta labs is aimed at controlling Chronic Wasting Disease in Canada through a variety of scientific approaches.
“Different labs are experts in different fields, so we can draw on that expertise to address the disease. For example, we are looking at genomic studies and which genetic factors could determine the spread of the disease.”
There is also a soil component to the study, as it is known that contaminated soil can spread the disease through groups of deer. Thus, one prong of the project is targeting prion disease in soil and how best to stop its spread.
Additionally, researchers are analyzing hundreds of samples from deer testing positive for Chronic Wasting Disease in Alberta to assess whether prions are all the same in a certain region, as differences in prions can influence which species they infect.
Spread the word, not the disease
Though there is currently no research proving that Chronic Wasting Disease is transmissible to humans, the possibility exists, making communication an important part of the project.
“We must convey to the general public, and hunters in particular, that humans could be exposed to this disease in certain situations.”
While the project is ongoing, scientists have already found some components of soil that can degrade prions, and are further investigating this to pinpoint the concentrations needed to achieve degradation.
At the same time, they have developed cell lines to study chronic wasting disease more easily, and found some differences between prions affecting deer populations in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“We are also examining the distribution of prions outside the brain of deer. We know they accumulate within the brain, but they can be present in tissues like muscle as well, which could pose a further problem for humans.”
Q & A
Perhaps the biggest problem this study is trying to tackle relates to the knowledge gaps around the subject matter and how best to fill them: How are different populations of cervids affected by prions? What are the key properties of these pathogenic agents?
“There is so much we don’t know about the disease, especially around bioremediation. That lack of knowledge can be costly, because when the disease appears, farmers need to cull their deer and bear the resulting financial loss. To make matters worse, the animals they bring in as replacements may also get infected if the soil is contaminated. Finding something that could eliminate this disease from the soil, or at least reduce it, could be very helpful.”
The long incubation period for prion diseases raises additional questions for its zoonotic potential, as in humans the incubation period can be as long as 20 years, so determining if there is some link to deer consumption is difficult.
In spite of the challenges, Dr. Otero Garcia is glad to be involved in the project and feels like she has found her niche.
“My time thus far with the study has been fantastic, as it relates so well to my training. I have a lot of experience with analysis of tissues outside the brain, and since I have a strong background in animal pathology, the work just comes naturally to me.”
The researchers behind the project recently submitted their update for this year, and though the study is slated to end in September, they are hoping for an extension to continue this critical work. Assuming they get it, Dr. Otero Garcia may have limited time to pursue her other passion.
“I love nature, but in Europe it is harder to come by. I really enjoy visiting parks in Canada, doing day trips, hiking and exploring the woods.”
Though she may branch out down the road, for now she is savoring her research on prions and counting her blessings.
“I feel very fortunate since many researchers finish their PhD and then are unable to work in the same field that they studied. I have found a specialty that I love, and I hope to continue in this area for years to come.”
Besides, when it comes to ice breakers at parties, it’s hard to beat “I specialize in zombie deer disease.”