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Second form of contagious cancer found in Tasmanian devils

By Stephen Feller   |   Dec. 30, 2015 at 4:39 PM

TASMANIA, Australia, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- A contagious cancer, spread by biting, has decimated the population of Tasmanian devils since 1996. Researchers have now identified a second contagious cancer in eight devils, making them question how rare contagious cancer is, according to a new study.

In addition to attempting to breed devils identified as immune to the disease, scientists started working on a vaccine against Devil Facial Tumor Disease earlier this year -- which they said will not be thrown off by the discovery of a second form of the cancer.

The cancer, which researchers believe is spread by common biting behavior, causes tumors and lesions on the face and neck, and kills 100 percent of the animals it infects.

Only two other transmissable cancers, in dogs and soft-shell clams, have been found in nature, according to researchers.

"Until now, we've always thought that transmissible cancers arise extremely rarely in nature, but this new discovery makes us question this belief," said Dr. Elizabeth Murchison, a researcher in the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Cambridge, which confirmed the second form of cancer, in a press release. "Now that we have discovered that this has happened a second time, it makes us wonder if Tasmanian devils might be particularly vulnerable to developing this type of disease, or that transmissible cancers may not be as rare in nature as we previously thought."

Researchers at the University of Tasmania were conducting routine research on the animals, as they have since the discovery of the first form of DFTD. Tumor samples from one devil displayed features not typical of DFTD, according to the study The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, including chromosomal changes different from the first disease.

While researchers said existence of DFT1 and DFT2, as they are now referred to, makes them rethink the commonality of contagious cancers in nature, they will continue on with efforts to vaccinate as many devils as possible to save the species.

"Fortunately this is similar to DFTD and the procedures in place to deal with DFTD will be used to investigate this new cancer," said Greg Woods, a professor at the University of Tasmania, in a press release. "Vaccine research will not be affected as the new cancer can be incorporated into the vaccine."

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