Devil disease is immortal, new study finds

Aug 31, 2012
Devil disease is immortal, new study finds
Dr Kathy Belov: "Amazingly Devil Facial Tumour Disease is replicating itself just as fast as ever."

(—The outlook for Tasmanian devils appears even worse following breakthrough research by the University of Sydney published in PLoS One, today.

This new research reveals that Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), which has already decimated 85 percent of the devil population, is not weakening with time, making and a vaccine urgent priorities to preserve the species.

"The scientific community trying to address the disease hoped it was slowing down or would show signs of slowing down but this research proves it is not doing that and is more likely to get stronger," said Dr Kathy Belov from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University and lead author of the paper.

"We have discovered that DFTD is able to survive indefinitely because the 'caps' at the ends of their chromosomes are being replenished, essentially preventing ageing in this cell line."

DFTD is a naturally occurring contagious cancer which is transmitted between devils when they bite each other. It is transmitted through the of its .

Since its appearance in 1996 DFTD has killed in excess of 100,000 animals and gone through billions of cell divisions, so some deterioration of the cell line might have been expected.

"Amazingly DFTD is replicating itself just as fast as ever. Our results confirm that DFTD represents one of the oldest naturally living, and continuously transferred cell lines in nature," said Beata Ujvari, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Faculty of and co-author of the paper.

The research looked at telomere changes over time in DFTD cells. Telomeres are repeated sequences on the ends of chromosomes that have been compared to the protective plastic on the end of a shoelace.

In the same way, the primary role of the telomeres is to protect the end of the from fraying. During normal telomere length shortens until a critical length is reached, at which point the cell can no longer divide.

In human cancer cells telomeres do not get shorter but are maintained by an enzyme called telomerase.

"Similarly we have now confirmed that in DFTD cancer cells the telomeres were also maintained by the telomerase enzyme so the cells can divide without limit," Ujvari said.

"The confirmation of the mechanism did not surprise us, given its existence in humans, but the longevity and stability of the disease is surprising and at this point, the revelation that DFTD cells are immortal is demoralising."

In fact the researchers discovered that both the length of the telomere and the activity of the telomerase have been increasing over time in the devils.

Nobody has previously found that the activity of telomerase can increase over time in a species and future studies will need to test if this leads to an increased rate of cell division in the devils.

"In the meantime we need to redouble our efforts to protect this species from extinction. We have found that the tumour is not going to die out, meaning that our major hope at the moment lies in removing the devils from the path of DFTD. The captive breeding program is essential to save this iconic species from disappearing completely," Ujvari said.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

More information: Ujvari B, Pearse A-M, Taylor R, Pyecroft S, Flanagan C, et al. (2012) Telomere Dynamics and Homeostasis in a Transmissible Cancer. PLoS ONE 7(8): e44085. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044085

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Culling can't save the Tasmanian devil

Oct 04, 2011

Culling will not control the spread of facial tumour disease among Tasmanian devils, according to a new study published this week in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology. Unless a way ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

( —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

( —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

( —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.