A unique transmissible and rapidly spreading cancer threatens the very existence of Tasmanian devils. To combat this particularly aggressive disease, a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory research team, in collaboration with 454 Lifesciences, is committing resources to sequence parts of the devil’s genome in an effort to increase the odds of saving them from extinction.
In 1996 scientists first discovered the facial tumors on Tasmanian devils. Subsequent research revealed that the cancer is transmitted from one devil to another when tumor cells are transplanted through fighting, biting, and other physical contact.
Once afflicted with the cancer, aggressive tumors begin to appear on the face and neck of the devils, restricting their ability to eat. Within approximately three months, the devils succumb to the disease and often die of starvation. The disease has decimated the devil population by nearly 90 percent in certain geographical areas of Tasmania, and officials project that within twenty years the entire species could become extinct.
The process by which the disease spreads among the devils has only been seen once before and represents a new field in cancer biology. Inbreeding in wild populations may prevent the devils’ immune system from recognizing the cancer as foreign, allowing the cancer to be transmitted. To provide an alternate fate for the devils, the Tasmanian government will have an insurance population of more than two hundred devils in quarantined facilities before the end of 2008.
The CSHL research team, led by researcher and native Tasmanian Elizabeth Murchison, Ph.D., aims to understand how the tumors work at a molecular level by sequencing the genes expressed in the devils’ tumor. As part of the delegation’s visit, CSHL researchers presented an overview of the research being conducted to address the crisis. “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,” said Dr. Murchison.
“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,” explained David L. Spector, Ph.D., CSHL director of research. “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.”
According to Hannah Bender, an Australian veterinarian and Ph.D. student who works with the CSHL team, the disease is now found in more than 50 percent of the devils’ habitat. “This research will be a vital component of the Save the Devil Program and will assist in fully understanding the disease, its characteristics and what might be done for future approaches,” said the Honorable Doug Parkinson, Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council of Tasmania. Information gathered by the CSHL team during their research of the tumor’s genome will also aid the Tasmanian breeding program to ensure a genetically diverse insurance population.
The uniqueness of the tumor structure also has human implications. “We’re using all of the research tools employed for understanding human tumor biology,” said Gregory Hannon, Ph.D., CSHL professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator who oversees Murchison’s work. “A cure for the devil may have applications for humans as well.”
Simon Boughey, senior adviser to the Tasmanian Minister for Primary Industries and Water said, “We appreciate what Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is doing to help combat this problem, and thereby save the devils.”