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Human Anti-Cancer Drugs May Help Cure Transmissible Cancer In Endangered Tasmanian Devils

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A new research may help save the iconic Tasmanian devils from total extinction. Anti-cancer drugs for humans will possibly help cure the Tasmanian devils' transmissible facial tumor.

There are only about 15,000 Tasmanian devils left on the planet and these marsupial carnivores endemic to Australian island Tasmania is considered as endangered species. The cause of their dwindling number is the DFT, a type of cancer that is passed between animals when they bite each other during fights.

This tissue-damaging disease causes severe facial disfiguration among Tasmanian devils. What's worse is this type of transmissible cancer is slowly killing the world's population of Tasmanian devils.

Hope For The Devil

The results of the research, which was published in the journal Cancer Cell, indicated that human drugs for cancer can help save DFT-afflicted Tasmanian devils.

Researchers studied the genetic profiles of two cancer types common in Tasmanian devils. Murchison and her team found striking similarities in tissues of origin, genetics, cancel cell mutation, and possible drug targets.

They also compared the DFT cancer with a human cancer and found that anti-cancer drugs for people, intended to stop the growth of molecules called receptor tyrosine kinases, worked well and stopped the growth of devil cancer cells growing in the lab.

"This study gives us optimism that anti-cancer drugs that are already in use in humans may offer a chance to assist with conservation efforts for this iconic animal," says Elizabeth Murchison of the University of Veterinary Medicine at the Cambridge University, lead author of the study.

Transmissible Cancer

Although incredibly rare in nature, transmissible cancers have occurred in Tasmanian devils on at least two separate occasions.

The DFT 1 cancer that was first observed in northeast Tasmania in 1996 infected a single devil. Even though the originally infected devil died, its cancer cells survived by metastasizing into other devils.

According to the study, the DNA of the devil's tumor cells is not its own but that of the original devil that first gave rise to DFT. The transmission of DFT 1 cells is possible because the cell can escape the devil's immune system. The most common way of transmission of DFT 1 cells among devils is through biting.

A few years ago, a second type of transmissible cancer, known as the DFT 2, was discovered in the area of southeast Tasmania. This cancer also causes facial tumors that are very similar to DFT 1. The only difference between the two is that DFT 1 first arose from the cells of a female devil while the DFT 2 came from the cells of the Tasmanian devil.

"Other than these two cancers, we know of only one other naturally occurring transmissible cancer in mammals - the canine transmissible venereal tumour in dogs, which first emerged several thousand years ago," Murchison said.

So far, only five transmissible cancers have been observed among animals, all of which cause leukemia-like diseases in clams and other shellfish.

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