Monday, 12 March 2012

Tasmanian Peril

This is something I was completely unaware of until last week; the possibility that Tasmanian Devil's may well become extinct over the next 25-35 years. Even more bizarre is the fact that a transmissible face cancer is the cause.

Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) was first recognised in 1996 and has spread to over 70% of the wild population and resulted in a 90% decline in some regions. Once contracted, the Devil has a life expectancy of 6 months due to starvation, secondary infections or metastases - there are pictures in the papers but they'll spoil your meal.
What makes this cancer so interesting though is the fact that it is spread from one Tasmanian devil to the next. In the case of the devils this is spread through biting which unfortunately for them is common practice during social feeding and mating. For the tumour to have become contagious it must have found a way to avoid the host immune response and an anti-tumour response and finding out how this has happened is not only important for Tasmanian Devil conservation but also for a deeper understanding of cancer biology.
Recent genomic studies of the Tasmanian Devil and that of DFTD are hoping to shed light on the disease. One possibility is that Tasmanian Devils lack competent anti tumour responses although recent studies have shown this is not the case as they have cells capable of having functional cytotoxic responses but don't appear to be able to recognise DFTD cells. This could potentially lead to therapeutics in the sense an antibody could be developed against DFTD which the Devils could maybe then recognise and destroy. The Tasmanian Devil genome has just been annotated too along with several clones of DTFD. This information can shed light on the evolution of DFTD as it has spread through Tasmania as well as hopefully shed more light on the host/cancer interaction.
Hopefully these recent advances may aid in the conservation of the Tasmanian Devil before it's too late. I have to admit I'm surprised by the lack of coverage this story receives. Is it because Tasmanian Devil's aren't as cute as the "does itself no favours" Panda and other endangered darlings? Am I just biased towards the devil because of Warner Brother's Taz-maina cartoon?
I thought the transmissible cancer angle would have been enough to grab media attention. Surely it's a scare-mongering dream raising the potential of human transmissible cancer? It could be like combining cancer with bird flu. Fortunately there isn't such a form of cancer in humans although there are rare cases of cancer being spread from one human to another through transplantation (accidental or intentional). Studying this unique cancer will hopefully save the Devils and hopefully provide us with information on how to tackle such a thing if it were to ever emerge in humans.

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