The Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a carnivorous marsupial now found in the wild only in the Australian island state of Tasmania. The Tasmanian Devil is the only extant member of the genus Sarcophilus.
It is also on the brink of extinction.
The existential threat facing the Tasmanian Devil is not anthropogenic in origin. The devils are suffering from a epidemic of cancer which has afflicted and killed over 70% of their wild population. Unless something can be done halt the cancer, Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is expected to kill of the Tasmanian Devil within the next 25 – 50 years.
What is completely unique about DFTD is that it is contagious. The Tasmanian Devils are facing extinction from a transmissible form of cancer. They are literally experiencing and epidemic of cancer.
At least scientists have now discovered the nature of the cancer involved in DFTD.
Scientists have discovered the true identity of a contagious form of cancer that is killing Tasmanian devils. The cancer, called devil facial tumor disease, stems from cells that normally insulate nerve fibers, a new study shows.
Genetic analysis of tumors taken from infected devils in different parts of Tasmania reveals that these insulating cells, known as Schwann cells, became cancerous in a single Tasmanian devil and have since passed to other devils, an international group of researchers reports in the Jan. 1 Science.
Previously, scientists had suspected that a virus might be the source of the infection, but the new study confirms that cancer cells themselves are transmitted from devil to devil.
Knowing the origin of the contagious tumors could help conservationists diagnose the disease more accurately and may eventually lead to a vaccine that would target tumor proteins, says Katherine Belov, a geneticist at the University of Sydney who was not involved with the project.
A vaccine against the facial tumor disease, “while now pie in the sky, in 10 years might not be,” says Gregory Hannon, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. “Ten years might be enough time” to save the devils from extinction, he says.
As terrifying and freakish as the thought of a contagious cancer is, this is a phenomenon that is restricted to species such as the Tasmanian Devil – and possibly the Cheetah – whose populations have essentially no genetic diversity. They’re so genetically similar to one another that cells, cancerous or not, transmitted between individual animals are not recognized as foreign invaders.
Hopefully though, this new discovery of the form of the cancer ravaging the Tasmanian Devils may enable scientists to develop either a vaccine or a treatment for the animals and thereby save the species from extinction.
Original Posted at Technogearophilia.