Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a particularly nasty tumor currently afflicting Tasmanian devils. It is responsible for the destruction of around 70% of the island population. One step, fortunately, has been made through the discovery of its specific cause.
The research collaboration, led by Australian scientists, has found that DFTD originates from cells called Schwann cells, which protect peripheral nerve fibres.
The results have been published in the journal Science.
Through the discovery, the team has now identified a genetic marker that could be used to accurately diagnose the perplexing cancer, which has seen the devil listed as endangered and facing extinction.
What happens is that these devils – so appropriately named – tear into each others’ faces because, well, that’s what they do. They’re about as nasty as the tumor itself. This then transmits the disease from one animal to the next. The research, in fact, has shown that the tumors all share the same characteristics, thus showing that it’s essentially the same faulty genes that are getting passed around, not new, individual tumors. Once the disease is passed, a massive tumor grows on the face of the unfortunate devil. If it doesn’t die directly from the cancer first, it starves from its inability to eat with a massive growth all over its face.
Associate Professor Greg Woods from the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Research Institute said the Schwann cell find was an important step in the process to further understand the disease.
“Devils develop tumours of all different types and the genetic markers we have identified are useful for telling apart the tumours that occur in DFTD from other kinds of tumours,” Associate Professor Woods said.
The propensity for devils to develop cancer so easily is distressing. They’re like the anti-naked mole rats. I would specifically be interested in learning about the quality of contact inhibition of the devils. My suspicion is that it simply sucks.