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article imageTasmanian Devils Face Extinction From Cancer

By John Rickman     Jan 29, 2008 in Environment
The Tasmanian Devil, the small furry creature from Australia, not the cartoon character, is in danger of being driven to extinction by a transmissible form of cancer that appears to be spread by facial tumors.
The problem was first discovered in 1996 when scientists found that the animals had a rare transmissible form of cancer that is spread through fighting, biting and other physical contact.
Once the creatures are infected they develop aggressive tumors on their faces and necks which limit their ability to eat, often causing the animals to die of starvation in as little as three months. The cancer has killed almost 90% of the Devil population is some areas and officials are predicting that if a cure is not found the animals may be extinct in as little as 20 years. The Tasmanian governmen therefore plans to quarantine an "insurance population" of some 200 uninfected Devils in a research facility by the end of 2008
The way that the cancer is spread is so rare that scientist know of only one other such case, opening up a new field in cancer research. A research team led by Dr Elizabeth Murchison is seeking to understand how the tumors work at the molecular level. A project to sequence the genes in the Devil's tumors is planned. Dr Murchison said:
"Once the cancer genes are fully sequenced, we will have a better chance to identify the cause and genetic make-up of this unique cancer.
Dr David L. Spector, director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Tasmania adds:
"Our efforts to sequence the devil's genome mark the first time anyone has attempted to use the technology for exploring this particular type of cancer biology. When we have a complete view of the devil tumor genes, scientists will be able to identify the cancer causing genes, which may lead to the development of therapies and vaccines.
Real Tasmanian Devils
It may also be possible to apply what is learned by studying this cancer to research into human cancers. Dr Gregory Nannon of CSHL says:
We're using all of the research tools employed for understanding human tumor biology. A cure for the devil may have applications for humans as well."
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