Tasmanian devils facing new cancer threat

December 30, 2015

Tasmanian devils are facing a serious threat to their survival.Scientists detailed findings published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that researchers at the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute while investigating a case of cancer very similar to Devil Facial Tumour Disease which has wiped out large numbers of the Tasmanian devils,have noticed cancer cells with different features.Tasmanian devils also known as Sarcophilus harrisii, are marsupials like kangaroos and opossums while females have pouches to carry and suckle newborns and are found only on the island of Tasmania, a place I have lived for considerable time.Researchers discovered the second transmissible cancer threatening the endangered Tasmanian devil, with at least eight confirmed cases in the south of Tasmania’s region called D’Entrecasteaux.The new cancer is similar to facial tumour disease in that it causes tumours, primarily on devils’ faces or mouths, and researchers think it is probably also spread by biting.Menzies Institute lead researcher Professor Greg Woods believe they could tackle the new form quickly.”Fortunately this is similar to DFTD, and the procedures in place to deal with facial tumour disease will be used to investigate this new cancer,” he said.Professor Woods added the new cancer had different cells and genes, but early tests suggested the vaccine could be effective.”They are similar, so one vaccine might protect against both,” he said.”Vaccine research will not be affected, as the new cancer can be incorporated into the vaccine.”Professor Woods said more research needed to be done to better understand the differences between the two types of cancer and the potential spread of the second form.

Tasmanian Devil
Tasmanian Devil

Researchers in their report said they were optimistic that a vaccine being tested for Devil Facial Tumour Disease could be modified to protect against the new cancer type.They are trialling the vaccine on healthy devils released into the wild earlier this year.The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program intends to maintain its current protection strategy. Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment acting general manager of natural and cultural heritage Howel Williams said the identification of the second disease type did not appear to alter the effectiveness of existing programs to protect the devil from the infectious tumour disease.“It’s important that new diseases or other threats to the Tasmanian devil are identified so we can determine if further measures are required to reduce the potential impact of them on the Tasmanian devil,” Dr Williams said.“Although it is still in the early days of understanding whether the new type of DFTD will have similar impacts to DFTD, its identification highlights the importance of the co-operative work being undertaken by the Save the Tasmanian Devil program with research partners including the Menzies Institute and Cambridge University.”The Tasmanian devil has long been known to suffer from an unusual type of cancer that can spread from animal to animal.These latest finding is an indication that Tasmanian devils are prone to the emergence of contagious tumors, and that transmissible cancers may arise more frequently in nature than previously thought.This second type of transmissible cancer in devils, known as DFT2 causes facial tumors just like the disease seen before, now referred to as DFT1.DFT2 is genetically distinct from DFT1.DFT2 possesses a Y chromosome, which means it came from a male unlike DFT1 which came from a female. For now, scientists have failed to understand why Tasmanian devils are susceptible to such cancers.

Contador Harrison