Tasmanian Devil Cancer Vaccine One Step Closer
March 12, 2013

Researchers Closing In On Way To Treat Tasmanian Devil Cancer

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A contagious form of cancer has brought the Tasmanian devil to the edge of extinction, but new hope for the carnivorous marsupial could soon be on the way in the form of a vaccine.

It was less than two decades ago that scientists first discovered the ailment known as devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), which spreads from one mammal to another when they bite each other on the face during a fight, researchers from the University of Cambridge explained in a recent statement. The disease has a mortality rate of 100 percent, often killing the infected Tasmanian devil mere months after becoming infected.

Sightings of the species have fallen by 85 percent during that time, leading scientists to believe that the terminal illness has already wiped out the majority of Australia´s Tasmanian devil population. Hopeful that they can prevent DFTD, scientists have desperately been working to develop some type of vaccine or treatment for the condition.

Now, researchers from Cambridge have joined forces with colleagues from the Universities of Tasmania, Sydney and South Denmark to shed new light on the cancer.

Previously, most experts have believed that the immune systems of the Tasmanian devils were unable to detect the disease due to their lack of genetic diversity. However, the Cambridge-led team has now discovered that the real story is not quite as simple.

In actuality, the DFTD cancer cells lack a molecule that helps the immune system determine whether or not the invasive cell is a threat and triggering the appropriate defensive response if necessary.

“Once it was found that the cancer was escaping from the devils´ immune system, scientists needed to figure out how,” explained Professor Jim Kaufman of the University of Cambridge´s Department of Pathology.

He and his associates were able to discover that the genes responsible for coding those molecules — which are known as major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules — are still present within the DFDT cells. They believe that it could be possible to introduce a special type of protein that will essentially activate those molecules, thus triggering the Tasmanian devils´ own innate immune response and allowing them to battle the cancer.

“Developing a vaccine based on our research could tip the balance in the favor of the devil and give them a fighting chance,” said lead author Dr. Hannah Siddle, also of the University of Cambridge. “However, we still face some hurdles.”

“The tumor is evolving over time and any vaccine program would have to take this into consideration,” she added. “Also, because of the difficulties of vaccinating a wild population, it may be more efficient to use a vaccine in the context of returning captive devils to the wild.”

Their findings have been published in Monday´s edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).