Hope for Taz? A Colony of Tasmanian Devils Resists the Species' Deadly Disease

By Andrew Moseman | March 11, 2010 12:58 pm

tasmanian-devilAs the deadly facial cancer that has drastically reduced the population of Tasmanian devils continues to spread through the species, the main hope for scientists trying to save them from extinction has been to hunt for devils that might be resistant to the disease, and to try to take advantage of that immunity. Reporting in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Kathy Belov and her team say they may finally have done just that: Some devils from northwest Tasmania, they say, are genetically distinct from the rest and could be resistant to the disease.

Belov says that most Tasmanian devils have immune systems so closely related that they’re all susceptible to the disease, which spreads when the devils bite each other on the face and leave behind tumor cells. The bitten devils’ immune systems don’t recognize the tumor cells as foreign, allowing them to take hold. Scientists have given the iconic marsupial as little as 25 years left if efforts are not made to solve the cancer riddle. The population has dwindled by a whopping 70 per cent since the first reported case of devil facial tumour disease in 1996 [Sydney Morning Herald]. Previous research showed that the marsupials are more socially linked that researchers initially believed, which is bad news for those trying to contain the disease.

However, Belov’s findings provide some hope. While earlier studies had looked at devils in eastern Tasmania, this time they took a wider sampling of 400 devils across the state. Twenty percent of those were found to be genetically different from the eastern devils, and so far have not caught the disease [AP]. Belov believes these resistant devils may be able to identify the cancer cells as foreign, which triggers their immune systems to mount a defense. She notes that the situation is still dire, but adds that “now we can say that we’ve got a glimmer of hope. There may be some animals that may survive this epidemic” [AP].

Hopefully those findings will hold true; a few years ago researchers thought they’d found the first disease-resistant devil, which they named Cedric, but it didn’t pan out. Cedric caught the disease in December of 2008.

Related Content:
80beats: Tasmanian Devils Have Precocious Sex to Beat Cancer
80beats: Can a New Blood Test Save Tasmanian Devils From Extinction?
80beats: Tasmanian Superdevil, Hope of the Species, Is All Too Mortal
80beats: Tasmanian Devils’ Social Networking May Spell Doom for the Species
The Loom: Saving Tasmanian Devils from a New Form of Life—Themselves

Image: flickr/JLplusAL

  • http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/ Ed

    To be fair, they also say that these potentially resistant devils live in the NW corner of the island where the contagious cancer hasn’t spread to yet. The only supporting piece of evidence for the idea that these devils could be resistant is that in the margins of this area, none of the genetically distinct 20% have caught the tumour yet, and that’s only cited with a personal communication.

    So basically, it’s a paper that catalogues some diversity in devil immune genes and hypothesises that this might give them a survival advantage, but it doesn’t actually provide much in the way of evidence for that.


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