Tasmanian DevilA rare, transmissible tumor has brought the iconic Tasmanian devil to the brink of extinction, but new research indicates hope for the animals’ survival and possibly new treatment for human cancers.

A team of international scientists led by Andrew Storfer, WSU professor of biological sciences, and Mark Margres, a former WSU postdoctoral fellow now at Harvard University, studied the genomes of cases of devil facial tumor disease, or DFTD, that regressed spontaneously — that is, the cancer began disappearing on its own.

The results, published in Genetics, found a single genetic mutation that leads to reduced growth of a transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils in the wild.

Andrew Storfer
Andrew Storfer

“This gene is implicated in human prostate and colon cancers,” said Storfer. “While the findings hold the most immediate promise to help save the world’s few remaining Tasmanian devils, these results could also someday translate to human health.”

They were surprised to find the mutation contributing to tumor regression doesn’t change the gene function but, instead, turns on a gene that slows cell growth in the tumor. At least it behaves that way in the lab.

Hope for advancing human healthcare

Current human cancer therapies focus on removing every trace of a tumor, often through toxic or debilitating treatments, said David Hockenbery, a cancer biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who contributed to the study.

“If there were ways that tumors could be tricked into regressing without having to administer cytotoxic drugs or deforming surgeries, it would be a major advance,” he said.

While infections cause up to 20% of all human cancers – such as gastric cancer from Helicobacter pylori and cervical cancer from human papillomavirus – for Tasmanian devils, the cancer is the infection.

Gaining new understanding of a deadly disease

DFTD spreads between the animals when they bite each other during common social behaviors. Since the mid-1990s, the disease has decimated the natural population of the carnivorous marsupials, which are now found only on the island state of Tasmania, off the southeastern coast of Australia.

Storfer’s lab leads a National Institutes of Health-funded team of researchers from the U.S. and Australia to improve conservation efforts for Tasmanian devils and increase understanding of the co-evolution of the tumor and its host.

Though ferocious with each other, Tasmanian devils take mild handling by people without much fuss, making it easy for investigators to humanely capture the animals, collect tissue samples, and tag them for monitoring before release back into the wild.

As the researchers work to save the devils, they also have an unprecedented opportunity to watch tumors naturally evolve and sometime regress without drugs or surgery.

“Although this disease is largely fatal, we’re seeing tumors just disappear from an increasing number of individual animals,” Storfer said.

The team is looking at the effects of other promising mutations in regressed tumors as well.

“We hope to learn something that could be applied to understanding and possibly treating a number of human cancers in the future,” Storfer said.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Washington Research Foundation.

Top photo: Tasmanian devil (stock image). 

Originally posted at WSU Insider.