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Can Tas­man­ian dev­ils nat­u­rally recover from deadly trans­mis­si­ble facial cancer?

pub­lished 19 Octo­ber 2016 | mod­i­fied 19 Octo­ber 2016

A healthy Tasmanian devilResearchers have seen evi­dence for the first time that some Tas­man­ian dev­ils are capa­ble of nat­u­rally recov­er­ing from the deadly Devil Facial Tumour Dis­ease (DFTD).

The research was per­formed by sci­en­tists from the Uni­ver­sity of Tasmania’s Men­zies Insti­tute for Med­ical Research, School of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences and School of Med­i­cine, with sup­port from the Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton and Tas­man­ian Depart­ment of Pri­mary Indus­tries, Parks, Water and Environment.

Blood sam­ples analysed at Men­zies found that six wild dev­ils with DFTD devel­oped an immune response to the can­cer cells. Four of these dev­ils recov­ered, but one relapsed and DFTD re-​occurred. The study results are pub­lished on 18 Octo­ber in the jour­nal Biol­ogy Letters.

The study was under­taken in north-​western Tas­ma­nia in wild dev­ils that have been sys­tem­at­i­cally mon­i­tored by Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences sci­en­tists since the arrival of DFTD in 2006. The immune response was detected in fewer than 10% of the dev­ils analysed, but the find­ing sig­nif­i­cantly assists sci­en­tists in their under­stand­ing of the biol­ogy of DFTD.

Until now there has been no con­vinc­ing evi­dence that wild dev­ils could recover from DFTD. This study sug­gests that some wild dev­ils can develop an immune response to the can­cer on their own.

Fur­ther evi­dence is required to con­firm that the immune response con­tributed to this recovery
Pro­fes­sor Greg Woods, co-​author and leader of the DFTD team, Men­zies Insti­tute for Med­ical Research, Uni­ver­sity of Tasmania »

Woods said that although only a small pro­por­tion of dev­ils appeared to recover from DFTD, the dis­cov­ery of the asso­ci­a­tion of an immune response with recov­ery was important.

Pro­fes­sor Woods high­lighted the impor­tance of the vac­cine research to pro­tect the major­ity of dev­ils that can’t nat­u­rally pro­tect them­selves from DFTD. “Full pro­tec­tion for the species will require a more wide­spread response, and that is what we are aim­ing for in the cur­rent vac­cine research.”

Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences researcher Dr Rodrigo Hamede, who estab­lished the field pat­terns of recov­ery over a 10-​year period at the site in north-​west Tas­ma­nia, said the results of this study could help with under­stand­ing how dev­ils were evolv­ing to co-​exist with DFTD. “As some dev­ils are respond­ing to the can­cer it sug­gests the pop­u­la­tion can evolve to live with the dis­ease. To fur­ther under­stand the adap­tive and evo­lu­tion­ary response of dev­ils to this dis­ease we need to con­tinue the long-​term mon­i­tor­ing of wild devil pop­u­la­tions,” he said. This nat­ural immune response might be the result of evo­lu­tion­ary forces between the dev­ils and tumours over sev­eral generations.

Dr Hamede is part of a team that has been study­ing dev­ils for the past 27 years. “This is an excit­ing dis­cov­ery that sup­ports our recent find­ing that dev­ils are evolv­ing at immune and can­cer genes in as lit­tle as four gen­er­a­tions after dis­ease out­break.”

The research was sup­ported by the Holsworth Wildlife Endow­ment Fund, the Aus­tralian Research Coun­cil, the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion with addi­tional sup­port pro­vided Uni­ver­sity of Tas­ma­nia Foun­da­tion through funds raised by the Save the Tas­man­ian Devil Appeal.

(Source: UTAS Men­zies Insti­tute for Med­ical Research media release, 19.10.2016)

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