Endangered devils have been battling cancer for 20 years.
The cancer, known as the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease, causes lesions and lumps to form around the mouth, interfering with feeding and eventually leading to starvation. It spreads from devil to devil through biting during social interactions. This aggressive disease has caused the Tasmanian devil population to shrink by more than 85 percent since 1996.
New research has found that the devils themselves may hold the cure.
In an article published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers report that the devils’ own natural antibodies might prove to be an effective therapy for combating the cancer.
“We know from human and animal studies that certain natural antibodies are able to recognise and kill cancerous cells, so we wanted to see whether the presence of these molecules would also determine tumour development in Tasmanian devils," said Beata Ujvari, the study’s lead author from Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology, in a press release.
The researchers collected blood samples from Tasmanian devils — some with cancer and some without — and measured their natural levels of two particular antibodies that have been shown to target certain types of cancer cells in humans.
They found devils that had a higher ratio of the antibodies were less likely to have cancer.
"We can deduce then that devils with higher natural antibody ratio are therefore less susceptible to the contagious cancer," said Ujvari.
With this knowledge, scientists could develop anti-tumor vaccines that stimulate production of these natural antibodies, or they could attempt to directly treat the cancer with natural antibodies. As Ujvari explains, the process is known as ‘active immunotherapy’ and it is becoming more widely applied to treating human cancers.
The Tasmanian devil is listed as Endangered on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
A treatment for the disease that has wreaked havoc on their population is long overdue. This research suggests that active immunotherapy could be the devils’ saving grace.
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