Scientists crack devil cancer code
Hobart-based scientists have cured a number of Tasmanian devils of the deadly devil facial tumour disease that has been threatening the wild population.
An immunotherapy breakthrough was announced in March after six years of international research led by UTAS's Menzies Institute for Medical Research.
“This is almost a eureka moment for us because it’s the first time we can say for sure that it was the immunotherapy that was making [tumours] shrink,” Professor Greg Woods, the project leader, said.
The therapy involved triggering diseased devils' immune systems into action by injecting specially treated live cancer cells.
The devils were not only able to overcome the newly injected live cells, but their reactivated immune systems also dealt with their original tumours.
“When we saw those tumours get smaller, it was so exciting,” Professor Woods said.
Growths the size of golf balls shrunk and disappeared over three months of treatment.
Five diseased devils underwent the treatment at the Menzies Institute.
Two devils did not respond, but three were cured.
Devil Facial Tumour Disease is a rare contagious cancer that is spread through biting.
Over the past 20 years, it has reduced wild devil numbers from 150,000 to 30,000.
The marsupial carnivores have been placed on the critically endangered list and a captive "insurance population" established in zoos and sanctuaries in case of total extinction in the wild.
Some wild devils (less than 10 per cent) have shown a natural resistance, but the wider population remains under threat.
The situation has been complicated by the discovery that the disease is mutating.
“We have recent evidence that a few devils’ [immune systems] seem to respond, but unless we can help the ones that don’t, their future is still very insecure,” Professor Woods said.
Healthy devils from an insurance population have been successfully immunised by the Menzies team before being released in areas known to be populated by diseased devils.
Their resistance to the disease has been encouraging.
Professor Woods said the latest findings underlined that the devils’ immune system was its best ally against DFTD.
“This is an important step along the way to developing a vaccine to protect against DFTD and potentially for immunotherapy to cure devils of established DFTD,” he told The Mercury.
The breakthrough was achieved through collaboration between Menzies, the UTAS School of Medicine, the Victorian-based Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and the universities of Sydney, Southampton, Southern Denmark and Cambridge.
Funding was provided by the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, with additional support from the University of Tasmania Foundation through funds raised by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal.
The work was published in March in Scientific Reports.
The Mercury editorialised: "Our scientists well deserve some of the adulation we normally reserve for sports stars and TV celebrities.
"Given the size and complexity of the challenge — fighting a previously unknown disease moving at a rapid rate — untangling the puzzle in a few years is a remarkable achievement."
Footnote: The State Government announced funding of $100,000 in March to help combat a mange mite infestation among wombats. Trials of existing and new mange treatments will be undertaken by the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment, UTAS and Conservation Volunteers Australia. A volunteer group, Wombat Warriors, is building the first of three planned sanctuaries to help treat and then isolate cured wombats. “While wombat mange mite infestation is prevalent across many States, it is clear that Tasmania’s wombat population needs some special help,” the Minister for the Environment, Matthew Groom, said.
Image courtesy of The Mercury
4 April 2017, Edition 182