A University of Cambridge led collaboration with the Universities of Tasmania, Sydney, and South Denmark reported the discovery of a unique feature in Tasmanian devil cancer that could prevent the extinction of the iconic marsupial in the March 11, 2013, issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Contagious cancer devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) is 100 percent fatal and is one of the two forms of cancer known that is transmitted between individuals. The present Tasmanian devil population has decreased by 85 percent in the last decade due to DFTD. DFTD is transmitted by biting in play, territorial disputes, and sexual behaviors in the Tasmanian devil.
The researchers found that DFTD has been escaping the natural cancer detection system that is a part of all mammal's cells. “On the surface of nearly every mammalian cell are major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. These molecules enable the immune system to determine if a cell is friend or foe, triggering an immune response if the cell is foreign and a potential threat.” DFTD cancer cells lack these critical molecules and this fact allows the disease to be so deadly and so rapidly spread.
The scientists anticipate this discovery will lead to a vaccine that can stop the extinction of the Tasmanian devil.
The researchers also note that it is only a matter of time before a human to human transmissible cancer evolves. The Tasmanian devil cancer research can put science one jump ahead of a major killer in mankind.