Friday, 13 April 2018

Human drugs could help treat transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils



April 9, 2018, University of Cambridge

Transmissible cancers are incredibly rare in nature, yet have arisen in Tasmanian devils on at least two separate occasions. New research from the University of Cambridge identifies key anti-cancer drugs which could be trialled as a treatment for these diseases, which are threatening Tasmanian devils with extinction.

The research also found that the two Tasmanian devil transmissible cancers are very similar to each other, and likely both arose due to susceptibilities inherent to the devils themselves.

Tasmanian devils are marsupial carnivores endemic to the Australian island of Tasmania. The species is considered endangered due to devil facial tumour 1 (DFT1), a cancer that is passed between animals through the transfer of living cancer cells when the animals bite each other. DFT1 causes grotesque and disfiguring facial tumours, which usually kill affected individuals.

The DFT1 cancer first arose in a single individual devil several decades ago, but rather than dying together with this devil, the cancer survived by 'metastasising' into different devils. Therefore, the DNA of the devils' tumour cells is not their own DNA, but rather belongs to the individual devil that first gave rise to DFT1 all those years ago. Remarkably, DFT1 cells can escape the devils' immune systems despite being in essence a foreign body.

The DFT1 cancer was first observed in north-east Tasmania in 1996, but has subsequently spread widely throughout the island, causing significant declines in devil populations.

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