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New type of face cancer threatening Tasmanian devils

"This is a warning to how we manage not just the Tasmanian devil but all vulnerable species, particularly those confined to islands, where disease is a real threat and can do a lot of damage quickly," researcher Hannah Siddle said.

By Brooks Hays
Australia's Tasmanian devil population is under threat from a new type of facial cancer. Photo by Adwo/Shutterstock
Australia's Tasmanian devil population is under threat from a new type of facial cancer. Photo by Adwo/Shutterstock

Aug. 16 (UPI) -- Already suffering from the spread of Devil Facial Tumor Disease, Tasmanian devils are now under threat from a second type of face cancer.

Scientists have identified the emergence of another similar but distinct disease, Devil Facial Tumour 2, among Tasmania's devil population. Researchers described the threat in a new paper published this week in the journal eLife.

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Over the last decade, the Tasmanian devil population has declined by 60 percent as a result of DFTD, which has a 100 percent mortality rate. The latest research suggests DFT2 could prove even more devastating.

"There is a real threat that this contagious cancer could now spread very rapidly through the population," Hannah Siddle, biological scientist at the University of Southampton, said in a news release. "The Tasmanian devil has already been decimated by one contagious cancer and these latest findings could jeopardize its future in the wild."

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Analysis of the new disease revealed the presence of major histocompatibility complex molecules on DFT2 cells. In theory, the presence of MHC molecules should allow the mammal's immune system to recognize the diseased cells as a foreign invader and attack. But the same analysis also showed DFT2 cells are shedding their MHC molecules, which could allow the disease to propagate and spread from devil to devil more quickly.

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That's bad news for the world's largest marsupial carnivore. But scientists are holding out hope of a solution. The good news is that scientists have been studying DFTD for several years and have identified a number of potential treatment strategies.

One previous study showed natural antibodies could be used to thwart the facial cancers, while another found devils are developing genetic immunity to the diseases, curbing its spread.

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"Although this could be very bad news for the Tasmanian devil, we are in a better position than we were when the first contagious cancer emerged. We are further ahead with research and with developing captive management strategies," Siddle said. "However, this is a warning to how we manage not just the Tasmanian devil but all vulnerable species, particularly those confined to islands, where disease is a real threat and can do a lot of damage quickly."

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