Washington State University scientists, led by Andrew Storfer, an evolutionary geneticist and WSU professor of biology, have discovered genes and other genetic variations that appear to be involved in cancerous tumors shrinking in Tasmanian devils.
Their research is an important first step towards understanding what is causing devil facial tumor disease, a nearly 100 percent fatal and contagious form of cancer, to go away in a small percentage of Tasmanian devils and could have implications for treating cancer in humans and other mammals as well.
“Some of the genes we think have a role in tumor regression in Tasmanian devils are also shared by humans,” said Mark Margres, a former WSU postdoctoral researcher now at Clemson University who is part of an international team of researchers studying devil facial tumor disease led by Storfer.
“While still in a very early stage, this research could eventually help in the development of drugs that elicit the tumor regression response in devils, humans and other mammals that don’t have this necessary genetic variation,” Margres said.
For the last decade, Storfer’s team has been investigating how some Tasmanian devil populations are evolving genetic resistance to devil facial tumor disease that could help the species avoid extinction.
Tasmanian devils have been pushed to the brink of extinction by the rapid spread of devil facial tumor disease, one of only four known forms of transmissible cancer and by far the deadliest. Since it was first documented in 1996, the disease has wiped out an estimated 80 percent of devils in Tasmania, the only place in the world where the animals live.
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