Tasmanian devil vaccine breakthrough

2013-03-12 08:36
A Tasmanian devil is pictured with a cancerous growth on its face. (AP/Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment, HO)

A Tasmanian devil is pictured with a cancerous growth on its face. (AP/Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment, HO)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Sydney - Australian scientists on Tuesday hailed a breakthrough discovery in the hunt for a vaccine against a savage facial tumour disease threatening the endangered Tasmanian devil with extinction.

A research team headed by University of Tasmania immunologist Greg Woods has established how the disfiguring cancer, spread from devil to devil by biting during fights, manages to take hold and grow so rapidly.

Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), first recorded in the wild in 1996, typically causes death within three to six months and has seen numbers plunge 91% in the wild to near-critical levels.

Scientists have long believed that successive generations of in-breeding which has seen the species' genetic diversity dwindle, weakening their immune systems, was the main factor in the cancer's devastating impact.

But Woods said his team found a key immune-triggering marker usually seen on the surface of mammalian cells, called the major histocompatibility complex molecule (MHC), was not found in DTFD cells.

Without MHC markers the tumour's cells were not seen as foreign by the devils' immune systems and allowed to proliferate.


Importantly, Woods said the genetic code for MHC molecules remained intact in DFTD cells, meaning they could potentially be switched back on.

"This work highlights the potential for the development of a vaccine," Woods said.

"By introducing signalling molecules such as interferon-gamma, a protein which triggers the immune response, the DFTD cells can be forced to express MHC molecules."

The team's next step would be to study cells from devils who had relapsed after initial success in fighting off the tumour in the wild "to understand the potential for the evolution of tolerance to the disease".

The study, published in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was a collaboration between the University of Tasmania and Cambridge, Sydney and South Denmark universities.

Research on the DFTD is a small field and many of its top experts were involved in this study.

DFTD has seen the rat-like, carnivorous nocturnal marsupial plunge from a pest species to endangered in a very short period, with their numbers - once in excess of 250 000 - now estimated in the low tens of thousands.

They once roamed Australia but the devil is thought to have died out on the mainland several hundred years ago and are now isolated to Tasmania, an island state in the southern Tasman sea.
Read more on:    cancer  |  health  |  research

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.