Scientists find Clue to Killer of Tasmanian Devils

A contagious cancer seems to be threatening to wipe out Tasmanian devils, according to scientists. New research indicate that the origin of the disease might have been traced, which is just one step towards saving this fierce Australian marsupial.

The cancer is spread when Tasmanian devils bite their counterpart’s faces. The fast-killing cancer, discovered in 1996, has led to a decline of 70% in their population. In spring last year, Australia listed the Tasmanian devil as an endangered species. Tasmanian devils were made famous by Looney Tunes’ cartoon character, Taz – a whirlwind Tasmanian devil.
So far, no treatment has been discovered and will not be until scientists are able to better comprehend the factors that stimulate the strange ‘devil facial tumor disease’. An international research team that went right into the workings of the cancer’s genes says that the cancer first arose in cells that shield the animals’ nervous system.

The recent findings, included in a recent edition of the journal Science, states that a test has been developed to assist with diagnosing the tumor. The next step for scientists is the lookout for mutations and the hope that the development of a vaccine or treatments that could protect what is left of the Tasmanian devil population.

Elizabeth Murchison, lead researcher at the Australian National University said, “The clock’s ticking. It is awful to think there could be no devils here in 50 years because they are dying so quickly.”

The cause for the trigger of the cancer is yet unknown, and causes tumors so large on the necks and faces of the devils that the animal is unable to eat. Murchison also said that they were sure that the cancer did not come from another species. For reasons yet unknown, Tasmanian devils are subject to a variety of cancers. The genetic signature of the tumor indicates its occurrence some twenty years ago, in the devils’ Schwann cells – those that produce insulation called myelin which is critical for their nerves.

When one devil bites another, they transfer living cancer cells, which then form an almost exact copy of the preliminary animal’s tumor. The only other known cancer of this type is one that is sexually transmitted in dogs.