Tasmanian Devil: Scientists Working On Vaccine To Save Species

First Posted: Jul 21, 2015 08:02 PM EDT

Researchers at the University of Southampton in England are working on the development of a vaccine to save the Tasmanian devil from a rare infectious cancer that is threatening to wipe out remaining populations, known as Devil Facial Tumor Disease.

This type of cancer began in the neural (Schwann) cell of the nervous system of a lone Tasmanian devil about 18 years ago, resulting in tumors and lesions on the face and neck and killing 100 percent of those infected. Researchers believe that the disease occurs 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 news 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."

Fortunately, thanks to $285,000 gifted from the Leverhulme Trust, researchers are beginning a three-year research project to better understand how the disease moves between animals and how they can potentially form a vaccine against the deadly tumor.

"We have an opportunity to develop an effective vaccine against a disease that is rapidly destroying a unique and important species. The Tasmanian devil is the top carnivore in Tasmania and its loss would be a disastrous outcome for the ecosystem. It has proven impossible to prevent the spread of DFTD and only a successful vaccine will allow captive, immunised animals to be released into the wild, eventually eradicating the disease."

The grant will also help to further finance study on the disease at a molecular level.

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