In a small step forward in the scientific effort to save the Tasmanian devil from the infectious disease that threatens the species with extinction, researchers have developed the first blood test for the ailment known as devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). Previously it has not been possible to determine whether a Tasmanian devil had DFTD until symptoms, such as facial lesions, appeared. However by early detection the diseased animals could be separated (and possibly culled) from healthy animals in the wild [Times Online]. The captive populations that are being kept as insurance against possible extinction could also be tested routinely.
Says researcher Robert Shellie: “We think it is quite a significant breakthrough. In a nutshell, what we have done is develop a blood test for DFTD. It’s a simple test and requires … only a drop of blood from an ear-prick. To be able to determine whether the disease is there, before you can see tumours on the faces of the devils, means that we can detect the disease at a much earlier stage” [The Australian].
The disease cutting through the ranks of Tasmanian devils is a rare form of infectious cancer that is spread between animals by biting. Cancer cells are deposited on an infected devil’s face, where they grow into grotesque facial tumors that eventually prevent the creature from eating. The disease has so far wiped out an estimated 70 per cent of the population of the devil, which is found only in Tasmania and is one of Australia’s celebrated animals. It is feared that the mammals could be extinct within 25 years [Times Online].
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Image: flickr / sanjoyg