Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

When the Devil can Save Mankind

Since when can the Devil save Mankind from one of its worst medical scourges? In the last decade a highly pathogenic and very transmissible form of cancer has reduced the population of the Tasmanian Devil by 60 per cent. New research not only brings good news for the Devil but also lights the way for a possible anti-cancer vaccine for humans.

An international team of scientists has recently published an article in Science journal in which they report on their research to successfully crack the code of DFTD, a type of cancer which is devastating the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilius harrisii), the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, which is confined to the Island of Tasmania on Australia’s south-eastern coast.

The Deadly Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) has devastated the population of Tasmanian Devils, reducing their number by around 60 percent in just one decade. It is deadly within 9 weeks of transmission. It is a unique form of cancer which is easily transmissible from one animal to another by physical contact.

The research team, led by Dr. Elizabeth Murchison, from the Australian National University in Canberra and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, USA, took samples of facial tumors from the animals and found that the cancerous disease begins in the Schwann cells, a tissue around nerve fibers in the peripheral nervous system. DFTD is transmitted by physical contact, whereby the living cancer cells are passed from one animal to another.

The team found that DFTD originates from a single line of cells and estimates that when the genetic marker is identified, the disease can be more easily targeted. The tumors were genetically different from the host, but identical in their genetic composition, meaning that the scientists can now develop a diagnostic test using Schwann genes as diagnostic markers.

The team believes that by cataloguing the genes associated with DFTD, therapies and vaccines can be developed. If not, the future of the Tasmanian Devil seems bleak. The disease first appeared in the 1990s and by 2008 was present among Devils in 60% of the island, leading experts to predict that the population could be wiped out within 25 to 35 years.

Dr. Elizabeth Murchison stated in the article published in Science that once the team has discovered why this infectious form of cancer is not rejected by the immune system, then maybe a vaccine can be produced to help the system reject the cancer before it can take hold.

And from this research, the path will be prepared for research into vaccines against cancerous diseases in human beings. The sooner, the better. Green Monkey Disease in Africa was the forerunner of the AIDS pandemic. Could it be that DFTD is also the first stage of an infections form of cancer?