New Research Could Help Tasmanian Devils

Courtesy of Anaspides Photography/I. D. Williams

Scientists unraveled the origin of the contagious cancer plaguing Tasmanian devils, which could eventually allow conservationists to test the marsupials for the disease and vaccinate against it, according to a new study in Science.

Devil Facial Tumor Disease, a fatal illness passed from one animal to another through biting, is responsible for the death of up to 95 percent of Tasmanian devils in some places. (See a previous blog post on the topic here.) Researchers think that it could lead to the mammals’ extinction in 25 to 30 years—unless scientists can protect the population.

Investigating gene expression, researchers found a protein that could serve as an indicator of the disease. This marker could help researchers identify which individuals have the disease and allow them to inoculate those that haven’t contracted it.

"The biggest problem at the moment is there is no test to see if an animal is carrying the disease," reproductive biologist Tamara Keeley, who works out of the Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo in New South Wales, Australia, said in an article in Nature (access to the full story requires a subscription). “To prevent disease spread in the wild, conservation workers kill devils that have signs of the disease, but many sick animals can go undetected. ‘If we had a blood test, we could remove disease carriers in the hopes of managing the wild population,’” she said in the story.

Conservationists could also vaccinate a captive population kept in zoos and parks in both Tasmania and Australia as insurance. Right now there are only about 200 devils in captivity that do not have the disease, but conservationists want that number to reach 500 or more.

Even though a vaccine may not be developed in the near future, the researchers are optimistic that they will make progress with the new finding, Nature reported. "Now we have a good start on a set of genomic tools we can move forward with," said Anthony Papenfuss, a geneticist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne, and part of the research team.

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