A study of Tasmanian devils has uncovered signs that the animals are rapidly evolving to defend themselves against an infectious face cancer endangering the survival of the species.

One of just three known transmissible cancers, the Tasmanian Devil facial tumour, has wiped out 80% of wild devils in the past 20 years. It is passed between animals as a result of a bite from an infected Tasmanian Devil onto the snout of a non-infected Tasmanian Devil and has an extremely high death rate raising concerns that the animal may soon become extinct.  

Only two other infectious cancers are known to exist. Regular readers of Live Better With’s blog may recall a piece earlier in the year on an infectious cancer affecting clams on the US West coast. There is also an infectious cancer that affects dogs, passed on between their genitals during mating. Neither of these forms of contagious cancer however have been as deadly to the population they effect as the facial tumour has been to the Tasmanian Devils.

That’s why scientists from the UK, US and AUstralia have joined forces to search for a way to help the animals survive the disease. Using the latest DNA sequencing methods, they were able to look for changes in the Tasmanian devil’s genes and found that certain genes were adapting to help the body fight the cancer more effectively. These genes were linked to the immune system, helping direct the animal’s immune system to better target and destroy cancer cells.  

Dr Andrew Storfer, involved in the study said this was cause for optimism. "First and foremost, this gives us hope for the survival of the Tasmanian devil, which is predicted to be extinct but isn't," Dr Storfer said. "We see that the devils apparently are evolving genes that may be associated with resistance to the disease."

The team is now looking at the specific genes in more detail with the hope that these genetic changes to the immune system may offer new ways of tackling cancers in humans - or at least explain where these baffling contagious cancers came from.

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