Tasmanian devils can catch cancer

Scientists have found that cancer cells have evolved mechanisms to sneak past the Tasmanian devil’s immune system. With this information, they can now start making a vaccine which could protect the animal from extinction. The Tasmanian devil is a marsupial unique to the Australian island of Tasmania. Since the Nineties, devils have been battling a form of cancer that causes facial tumours, preventing them from feeding.
Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is one of just three known contagious cancers. Normally cancer can’t be transmitted as the immune system is able to recognise cancer cells from other individuals as ‘foreign’ and destroy them. However, because devils are an inbred island species they’re genetically so similar that cells from other devils are almost identical. DFTD has been responsible for the death of between 20 and 50 per cent of the population, and the species could face extinction as early as 2035.
The tumour cells are able to switch off genes in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a region of DNA that codes for proteins which sit on the surface of cells and alerts the immune system to infection or cancer. But with some of these genes deactivated, the tumour can go undetected. By vaccinating healthy devils with modified tumour cells, it’s hoped their immune systems will be primed to recognise DFTD.