Genome breakthrough for cancer-hit Tasmanian Devils

Sep 16, 2010
A healthy Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) at Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Australian scientists say they have made a breakthrough in the fight to save the cancer-hit Tasmanian devil by mapping the species' genome for the first time.

Australian scientists said on Thursday they had made a breakthrough in the fight to save the cancer-hit Tasmanian devil by mapping the species' genome for the first time.

The dark, furry marsupials were declared endangered in 2009 after a contagious began sweeping through the population, disfiguring their faces so badly they are unable to eat and starve to death.

Some 70 percent of devils have already been lost to the infectious disease, which is spread by biting as the feisty creatures mate and fight over animal carcasses.

But researchers working to save the dwindling species said the opened a new path to understanding where the cancer attacked and how it could potentially be treated.

"This sequence is invaluable and comes at a crucial time," lead researcher Elizabeth Murchison said.

"By comparing our draft sequence with samples taken from many hundreds of devils suffering from this cancer, we can begin to look at the spread of the disease... by identifying geographical routes and barriers in its transmission," she added.

"This knowledge could ultimately shape the ongoing conservation efforts in Tasmania."

Graphic on Australia's Tasmanian Devils, a rare carnivorous marsupial whose numbers in the wild has declined by 70 percent in the past 14 years since the discovery of a fatal cancer spreading through the population.

Murchison said the information would allow scientists to identify which mutations had actually caused the devils' cancer "and perhaps allow us to target those with particular drugs".

But Murchison, from the Australian National University, stressed the map was just the first step on what was likely to be a long and difficult road.

"Cancer is caused by a number of quite that occur in the genome. Actually finding out which ones of those cause the cancer is quite a challenge and something that we still have ahead of us," Murchison told ABC radio.

Scientists believe the cancer could wipe out the entire wild population of devils within 20 to 50 years, and experts have been capturing and breeding healthy animals in zoos for past six years to develop a buffer group.

Their work suffered a setback last month when a devil thought to be immune to the cancer, Cedric, died in captivity, dashing hopes scientists were nearing a cure.

Tasmanian devils first came to prominence when their unearthly shrieks and grunts while devouring animal corpses terrified European settlers arriving in Tasmania in the 19th century.

Some 150 years later, the devil has been made famous by "Taz", a Warner Brothers cartoon character that now fronts the conservation campaign to save the species.

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Bob_Kob
1 / 5 (6) Sep 16, 2010
And yet what progress is done towards human cancer?
musmusculus
4.3 / 5 (6) Sep 16, 2010
"And yet what progress is done towards human cancer?"

Why, none of course. A half century of cancer research in humans and mice never actually occurred. We spend the billions in cancer research funds visiting strip clubs. But you, Bob, have figured it out! Our scheme for strip club domination at taxpayer expense is now ruined. Drat!
Kingsix
5 / 5 (4) Sep 16, 2010
I am no cancer research specialist but I would imagine that this natural chance for testing ways of treating cancer through genetics will be very helpful in breakthroughs in genetic cures for human forms of cancer, since theoretical testing on humans is not easily approved.
El_Nose
1 / 5 (2) Sep 16, 2010
I am all for the research and learning new techniques --- but I am not for the ultimate outcome

This is a disease that is actually not caused by man for once. That means that these creatures have not evolved a way to save themselves... We should let it run its course and watch it do so. The idea that if there are taz devils that can not be infected these would be worth studing and introducing to mate with as many as possible is the right idea.

For all the talk of the glory of the evolutionary paradigm trying to save a species from going extinct due to it's inablility to rapidly change from a natural consequence should be viewed as scientific blasphemy.

But I do think we have a unique oppertunity to try to treat a rapidly spreading disease will a zero sum loss -- they are dying anyway why not try our radical therapies and look at the consequences we could learn a lot from trying but it shouldn't be our goal to save them.

i am not cold and heartless - it just science
gunslingor1
3 / 5 (4) Sep 16, 2010
For all the talk of the glory of the evolutionary paradigm trying to save a species from going extinct due to it's inablility to rapidly change from a natural consequence should be viewed as scientific blasphemy.

-Just let me say life cannot adapt to "rapid" changes. Slow gradual changes is when life adapts. Rapid changes usually wipe out a lot of animals and certain animal types, this is why reptils are no longer the top of the food chain.. only the smallest rats survived and evolved into us over MILLIONS of years.

As for the article, CANCER IS NOT CONTAGIOUS!!! Some germs like HPV can cause cancer, but cancer cannot be passes between animals. I wonder why they are studying the genome of animals to try to cure the cancer rather than studying the germ or whatever that is causing it. Perhaps, just a though, the animals just have a really weak resistance to carcinogins. maybe pollution is the cause; only reason I can think they aren't focusing on the cause. but a bite spread?
Gawad
4.4 / 5 (5) Sep 16, 2010
As for the article, CANCER IS NOT CONTAGIOUS!!! Some germs like HPV can cause cancer, but cancer cannot be passes between animals. I wonder why they are studying the genome of animals to try to cure the cancer rather than studying the germ or whatever that is causing it.
Sorry, but this is wrong. This *is* a CONTAGIOUS CANCER. It *is* exceptional, but that's what it is.The cancer cells themselves that are passed from one host to the next, not an underlying virus or other carcinogen that cases mutations. Essentially, these are Tasmanian Devil cells that have mutated to the point where they behave like an opportunistic parasite and can move from host to host. But because of their Tasmanian Devil origin, the animal's immune response is unable to manage the "infection" from thses cells and they replicate uncontrolled, i.e., a cancer. That's why they're studying the *animal's* genome: it's also the root of the cancer's genome. This let's them hit two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Kingsix
5 / 5 (3) Sep 16, 2010
sorry gunslingor1 but just because the types of cancer that we all know are not contagious doesn't mean that none are.

Typically Cancer has a cause, lung cancer comes from smoking etc. I do believe that that cause can be something that is communicable. My initial thought would be that the article is leaving out all of the behind the scenes mumbo-jumbo that most people, like me, wouldn't understand or care about.
marjon
1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 16, 2010
So not all cancers are from man-made pollution?
PPihkala
5 / 5 (3) Sep 16, 2010
El_Nose: Probably we don't know what has caused this cancer in these animals. But it still could be that these devils are weakened by different human activities like pollution and habitat destruction. Therefore I think we should do what we can to protect any species from dieing out, since every (native) species has it's place in nature and losing them might bring unforeseen changes to other species. And devils are predators, which makes it very hard for other animals to replace them.
gunslingor1
3.3 / 5 (3) Sep 16, 2010
So not all cancers are from man-made pollution?

There you go being moronic again. Who gets cancer when is just a statistical game based on exposer to carcinogens/radiation and genetics. Look at George Burns, smoked cigars for 100 years and never got it. Then a poor sucker living in NY never smoking a day in his life gets it.

As for everyone else whom informed me, thanks I guess. Still find it a bit hard to beleive, but I admit I am probably wrong, some rare cancers can probably spread to others... But I want to show my doctor friends and see what they think

Thanks again, except marjon you son of a...
Gawad
4.5 / 5 (2) Sep 16, 2010
As for everyone else whom informed me, thanks I guess. Still find it a bit hard to beleive, but I admit I am probably wrong, some rare cancers can probably spread to others... But I want to show my doctor friends and see what they think


It's good to be open minder *while* being sceptical. Would you get back to us when you hear from your doctor friends? (Actually, it would be even better if you have vets as friends.) I for one would be curious to learn their opinion.

Thanks again, except marjon you son of a...

...of a Tasmanian Devil? ;^)
Gawad
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 16, 2010
"Open minded", that is. Oh and I meant veternairians by vets, not veterans. At the same time, while you're asking them about freakishly scary medical conditions (contagious cancers), why not throw in a bit about Toxoplasma gondii, a very common parasite that infects the brain and may be subtly influencing nearly half of humanity's social and sexual behaviour?
trekgeek1
1 / 5 (3) Sep 17, 2010
This is good news, my Tasmanian devil was just diagnosed with breast cancer.
Nartoon
3 / 5 (4) Sep 18, 2010
If it is a contagious cancer, or pre-cancer shouldn't they be studying the fluid used to transfer this disease? This it's transferred by bites I'd suggest they check their saliva and analyze the difference between infected and non-infected devils.
Bob_Kob
1 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2010
Why, none of course. A half century of cancer research in humans and mice never actually occurred. We spend the billions in cancer research funds visiting strip clubs. But you, Bob, have figured it out! Our scheme for strip club domination at taxpayer expense is now ruined. Drat!


Yeah well it seems like it. These tasmanian devils have a 'breakthrough' from only probably a decade or so of research and yet as you put it half a century into our research and we still haven't progressed much.
tkjtkj
5 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2010
For all the talk of the glory of the evolutionary paradigm trying to save a species from going extinct due to it's inablility to rapidly change from a natural consequence should be viewed as scientific blasphemy.


errr...wrong again. I could demo a situation where within a single generation a life form has adapted to a changed environment. I.e., it has evolved. It is not a rare phenomenon.
tkjtkj
5 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2010
my browser is out of control, can't even properly quote that upon which i would comment..
Please forgive ..all.

My point is that very rapid evolution happens every day, and i can give examples.
thermodynamics
5 / 5 (3) Sep 19, 2010
And yet what progress is done towards human cancer?


Bob-Kob: I am a cancer survivor because of extensive research on the cocktail of drugs I was given including a monoclonal antibody that did not exist 5 years ago. There is continuous research and extensive testing and clinical trials. My cancer cannot, presently, be cured but it can be controlled. Continuing research and testing is moving toward either a cure or more tolerable drugs for the cocktail. I owe my life to the research and just assume you had no idea how much effort was going into saving more people. Things learned in saving the Tas Devil will help save more people.
SolidStateUniverse
4 / 5 (3) Sep 19, 2010
I've been reading about this for a while. I'm pretty sure they're studying this as a viral form of cancer. The virus is passed along by biting of the face during competition for food, hence the facial disfigurement.

One interesting side effect of the cancer is that due to the average life expectancy dropping to around 3 years or less, the age when tas devils normally reach sexual maturity, the age of sexual maturity has dropped to about 2 years somehow and thats probably the only thing saving the population right now.
thermodynamics
5 / 5 (3) Sep 19, 2010
The topic of contagious cancers is interesting. It turns out that a number of them are contagious if you share bodily material. For instance, some can be shared through organ donors or blood transfusions. There many documented cases of organs being the source for cancer. When you fill out a form for blood donation take a look. If you have cancer you are out of the people eligible for good reason. You could spread the cancer. They are not easily transmitted (as by kissing or sharing food)but some are transmissible through organs or blood products. Those transmission routes have directly to do with the research on Taz!
FainAvis
3 / 5 (3) Sep 20, 2010
It has been said elsewhere that these animals have a very low genetic diversity so a cancer arising in one animal easily transplants to another close relative. Its just the same as in a laboratory mouse strain when they put a few cells from one mouse into another it grows in the second mouse as easily as the first. Genetically its the same mouse.
Sinister181
5 / 5 (3) Sep 20, 2010
This is a disease that is actually not caused by man for once.


Yes, that's right. All other diseases are caused by man. It's a big conspiracy, my friend. HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Ebola, Malaria... All caused by man. Because researchers have nothing better to do than come up with new diseases to infect people with.

We should let it run its course and watch it do so.


So that means the next time you suffer from a terminal illness, doctors shouldn't try and help to cure you, because you weren't able to adapt to the disease?

And wouldn't treating the disease be the same as trying to save the species, or did you not think of that?

Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (2) Sep 20, 2010
Yeah well it seems like it. These tasmanian devils have a 'breakthrough' from only probably a decade or so of research and yet as you put it half a century into our research and we still haven't progressed much.

I'd say the reduction of 90% of cancers from a 6 month prognosis to a multidecadal prognosis with high incidences of regression to be quite an accomplishment.

How many twentysomethings die of testicular cancer now a days? How many women die of breast cancer with no known cause? How many people die of stage 1 cancers now a days compared to 3 decades ago?

We've made some truly stunning breakthroughs in cancer treatement. We haven't eliminated all cancers, and I don't expect us to do so any time soon, but rest assured, if you are diagnosed with cancer, it is no longer a death sentence in most cases, where as 30 years ago, you were writing out a will and buying insurance policies for an inevitable fate.
Gawad
5 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2010
I've been reading about this for a while. I'm pretty sure they're studying this as a viral form of cancer. The virus is passed along by biting of the face during competition for food, hence the facial disfigurement.


Check out http://www.nature...49a.html

Unless somehow this involves an as yet undetected virus imbeded in the tumor cells, this is one of the few rare cases of transmissible cancer *cells*. In fact, even if the original cancer was sparked by a virus induced mutation (and I understand that this is not what you were suggesting), currently it is still the cells moving from host to host.

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