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Scientists hope vaccine will save Tasmanian devil

"We have an opportunity to develop an effective vaccine against a disease that is rapidly destroying a unique and important species," said researcher Hannah Siddle.

By Brooks Hays
Scientists hope vaccine will save Tasmanian devil
Researchers are working on a vaccine to prevent the spread of an infectious cancer that is quickly wiping out Tasmanian devil populations. Photo by Adwo/Shutterstock

HOBART, Australia, July 21 (UPI) -- A rare infectious cancer is threatening to wipe out the Tasmanian devil population, the carnivorous marsupial found only on the Australian island state.

Researchers at the University of Southampton, in England, are working with scientists in Australia to develop a vaccine that can save the species from extinction.

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The Leverhulme Trust recently gifted $285,000 to the Southampton-led research project. The money will be used to study how the disease is transmitted from devil to devil. Researchers hope their observations will inform the creation of a cancer-thwarting vaccine.

The infectious nature of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease is unusual. The cancer sprouted in the neural (Schwann) cell in the nervous system of a lone Tasmanian devil some 18 years ago. The parasitic cancer causes tumors and lesions on the face and neck, killing 100 percent of infected animals. Researchers believe the disease spreads during biting behavior.

"This contagious cancer is very unusual in that the cancer cells can move between animals," Hannah Siddle, project leader and Southampton biologist, said in a press release. "We are looking for the proteins that make the tumour cells different to the host devils that they infect and then use these 'tumor specific' proteins to design a vaccine that will save the devil from extinction."

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While the disease has been mostly concentrated to the eastern half of the island of Tasmania, the infectious nature of the fatal disease threatens the entire population.

"We have an opportunity to develop an effective vaccine against a disease that is rapidly destroying a unique and important species," Siddle explained. "The Tasmanian devil is the top carnivore in Tasmania and its loss would be a disastrous outcome for the ecosystem."

Siddle says preventing the spread of the disease is impossible. Only a vaccine -- allowing researchers to release immunized animals from captivity into the wild -- will suffice.

Researchers in Tasmania have previously isolated several females identified as immune to the disease -- a genetic adaptation. Those females are being used to breed a population in captivity that might later be used to repopulate the island.

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