Tasmanian devils have been battling with a bizarre form of cancer that is contagious and spreads like wildfire. It’s passed on when the animals bite each other and has decimated their natural populations, which are now found only on the island state of Tasmania, off the southeastern coast of Australia.
The race has been on to slow the outbreak and new research published in the journal Genetics brings promising news as scientists have discovered that a single gene mutation can slow the growth of this deadly disease.
The researchers studied the genomes from devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) cases where the disease had spontaneously improved without treatment in the affected animals. To their surprise, they found that the slowing in tumor growth wasn’t because of a gene being suppressed but because of a gene being activated. Looking at the behavior of the cancer cells in a lab setting, they realized that it was a single genetic mutation that led to a reduced growth rate for DFTD.
The discovery is promising for Tasmanian devils whose population was being pushed to near extinction by DFTD. Field scientists observing the animals have made several observations of affected individuals seemingly reversing the growth of their tumors, and it's hoped this is the result of coevolution between the cancer and its host adapting new ways to cope with the disease.
The discovery also holds promise for improved cancer therapies in human disease as currently most treatments act by destroying all traces of a tumor. They’re often toxic and come with a host of harmful and even dangerous side effects that can put enormous strain on already unwell patients. The researchers hope that the manipulation of this gene could trick tumors into shrinking themselves in humans, providing a much safer avenue of treatment compared to cytotoxic drugs and complex surgeries.
"This gene is implicated in human prostate and colon cancers," said Andrew Storfer, professor of biological sciences at Washington State University. "While the findings hold the most immediate promise to help save the world's few remaining Tasmanian devils, these results could also someday translate to human health."
Here’s hoping the discovery can be harnessed to the benefit of these charismatic marsupials before it’s too late, for the world would be a much darker place without videos like this in it: