Caused by a fungus known as Pseudogymnoascus destructans, white-nose syndrome is currently killing bats across North America at an alarming rate. There may be hope, however, as a potential vaccine has recently been shown to be effective at warding off the disease.

The new research was conducted by scientists from the US Geological Survey, the University of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

In tests conducted by the researchers, 37 little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) were orally or hypodermically immunized with one of four vaccines currently under consideration, or with a saline solution that served as a control. The animals were then exposed to Pseudogymnoascus destructans while hibernating in a cave-like chamber – white nose syndrome typically develops as bats hibernate.

It was found that one group of bats, which received a vaccine based on raccoon poxviruses, were much less likely than the other groups to develop white nose syndrome. This was due to the fact that they developed specific anti-fungal immune responses.

Of course, going around and feeding or injecting all the bats in North America isn't a practical solution. To that end, the scientists believe that the vaccine could be applied to hibernating bats' bodies in the form of a gel, which they would ingest while grooming themselves or each other. Additionally, treated bats would likely transfer the gel to other bats, thus vaccinating them also.

"These results represent an exciting step forward, not only for managing white-nose syndrome but for treating disease in wildlife," says Jeremy Coleman, National White-Nose Syndrome Coordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "Vaccine development is among multiple options the Service is funding to treat white-nose syndrome, but it is one that holds great promise for heavily affected bat species."

A paper on the research was published this Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

Previous research indicates that ultraviolet light exposure may also be an effective treatment.