Tasmanian devils are in jeopardy. Over the last 20 years, a rare cancer has killed over 80% of the wild Tasmanian devil population. And now researchers know that this cancer is transmissible- and has a 100% mortality rate.
The disease is called DFTD, or devil facial tumor disease, and it’s thought that DFTD is trasmitted when animals receive bites to the face during social interactions. By looking at tumor cells grown in the laboratory, researchers found that the cells don’t express certain proteins called MHC molecules. MHC molecules act as markers that allow the immune system to identify diseased cells, so without these, the tumor cells slip under the radar.
With this information, researchers are now working with mice to try to turn on the MHC genes. The idea is that by doing this, the animals’ immune systems could mount a response significant enough to provide the animals with some protection.
Recent research has successfully shown that it’s possible to trigger an immune response to these cancer cells in mice. This is important, because by demonstrating that the immune system can mount a response to the disease, it shows researchers that there could be hope for a vaccine. For the sake of these beautiful animals, let’s hope so! Read more about it here. Read about measures being taken to save these animals here.