When most people hear the name Tasmanian Devil, they think of the small and ferocious little animal from the Looney Tunes named Taz. Just like in the show, Tasmanian Devils (carniverous marsupials) are tough, rugged and very aggressive animals. Unfortunately, over the past two decades, a rare case of contagious facial cancer, with a 100% mortality rate, has decimated the population. Scientists have estimated that this specific cancer has wiped out about 85% of the entire population, almost to the point of extinction. The cancer is typically spread when the Devils bite each other in the face during battle, killing it in a matter of months. Scientists are working tirelessly to find out how this cancer is slipping by the immune system and hope to find a cure.
Until recently, scientists believed that the cancer was able to develop, without
being detected by the immune system, because Tasmanian Devils lack genetic diversity. However, a study led by the University of Cambridge claims it is much more complex. On the surface of most cells are histocompatability complex (MCH) molecules, which determine whether other cells are good or bad. If the cell happens to be a threat, then the cell triggers an immune response. According to the research, these DFTD cancer cells lack theses complexes and can therefor avoid detection.
Researchers also found that the DFTD cells have just lost the expression of MCH molecules and that its genetic code is still in tact (it can be turned on). By introducing specific signaling molecules, scientists believe they can force the DFTD cells to express these molecules, leading to the detection of the cancer. Not only will this research help save the Devils, but it will also give scientists a head start on contagious cancers in other species when the time comes.