Scientists Use Tasmanian Devil's Immune System to Beat Cancer - Planet Ark Environmental Foundation

Scientists Use Tasmanian Devil's Immune System to Beat Cancer

By Carol Warwick  March 23rd, 2017

Australian scientists are using live cancer cells to treat Tasmanian devils infected with the deadly Devil Facial Tumour Disease, with positive results.


Scientists at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research (MIMR) are using live cancer cells to treat Tasmanian devils infected with the deadly Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). By injecting the devils with the live cells, scientists are prompting their immune systems to recognise the new cells as foreign, and respond by releasing the devils’ natural T-cells to attack the cancer cells. 

The recent trials have shown that tumours in three devils infected with DFTD vanished within just three months of receiving the new treatment, and the cancer was still undetectable after a year of monitoring. The key difference between regular DFTD cells spread between devils, and the live cells administered by the scientists, is that the live cancer cells contain a protein called cytokine, which causes the immune system to react.

These results bring the potential for a DFTD vaccine closer.

“The exciting thing is that we are working towards a vaccine and for a vaccine to work, the immune system has to target the tumour cells and kill them. We now have evidence that that can happen," said Professor Greg Woods of the MIMR in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

Scientists had thought the prolific spread of the disease was due to problems with the devils’ immunity. However, the MIMR says it is more likely to be the lack of genetic diversity which causes the disease to spread. Because the immune systems of most in the devil population are so similar, when transmitted between animals the disease is not recognised as foreign and the devils’ immune defenses are not triggered.

The Tasmanian devil is facing extinction due to the highly infectious nature of the disease, which is passed between devils through biting. This is extremely rare for cancer, which is not contagious, and researchers have described it as an aggressive non-viral, transmittable parasitic cancer. The disease causes tumours to grow as small lesions and lumps on the devil’s face, which leads to starvation and infected devils usually die within three to five months of first exhibiting symptoms.

As part of its program the MIMR is screening wild devils to see if they may be naturally resistant to the disease, due to the predicted diversity of their immune systems. They also note that devils on the west coast of Tasmania exhibit greater genetic diversity than their east coast cousins. The immediate goal of the MIMR’s studies is to determine how the devil’s immune system can be encouraged to recognise and destroy any trace of DFTD, which would have a dramatic effect on the future stability of the species.

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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.  


By Carol Warwick

Carol worked at Planet Ark in the PR and Media Team in 2017.

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