OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — While players from Omaha's Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln may be opponents this weekend in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the schools' researchers are cooperating in an effort to stop the spread of chronic wasting disease among wild deer and elk populations.

Jason Bartz, a medical microbiologist at Creighton, and Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, an engineering professor at UNL, have been working together since 2006 to study prions, the proteins that cause chronic wasting and mad cow diseases, in the environment.

The disease in humans is known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare brain disorder that causes behavior changes, memory loss and impaired coordination. It is always fatal, with patients dying within a year of showing symptoms.

Bartz and Bartelt-Hunt have focused specifically on chronic wasting disease, which can reduce the growth and size of wild deer and elk in areas where the prevalence is high, including southwest Nebraska. An infected deer can shed prions into the environment for months or years before showing any symptoms. The prions bind to the soil and can be contracted by another deer — thus continuing the spread of the fatal disease.

"I really think that our top finding has been ... that prions don't just bind to soils, but that different soil types really interact very differently with prions," Bartz said. "One thing we can say for certain is that when prions bind to soil, they remain highly infectious. It may be more of an idea that soil helps them persist in the environment or makes them more bio-available to transmission to other animals."

The collaboration began with a phone call Bartelt-Hunt made to Bartz as she was preparing to move to Omaha after being hired by UNL. Much of her post-doctorate research had dealt with pharmaceutical and other contaminates in the environment, but her curiosity was piqued when she read an article on prions in landfills.

"I just started looking on the Internet for people who work with prions ... and I found Jason at Creighton," Bartelt-Hunt said. "I called him out of the blue, and we met for lunch to talk about it, and that's where it all started."

Since then, their collaboration has led millions of dollars in research grants and publication of nearly 10 articles on prions in the environment in various research and medical journals.

Their hope is that the research eventually leads to ways to stop the spread of prion diseases.

"In both wild populations and farmed populations, you get these very contaminated environments where, if they have an outbreak of prion disease, it's really difficult to clean that up to get it back to the point where you can reintroduce animals to that system again," Bartelt-Hurt said. "Ultimately, moving toward how to ... clean those environments would be a great outcome."

But even among researchers, the spirit of cooperation does not erase competing loyalties in the closest thing Nebraska has to an in-state team rivalry.

"I like Shannon a lot, but I draw the line there," Bartz said. "I'm obviously pulling for Creighton."