Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Devil Tumour Changing

By Stephen Luntz

The cancer that is killing Tasmanian devils is changing.

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Little is known about the effects of the changes, but there is hope they may be used to fight the disease and possibly offer insights into human cancers.

In Proceedings of the Royal Society B, A/Prof Kathy Belov and Dr Beata Ujvari of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science have revealed that samples of the tumour from 5 years ago and today show alterations in the methylation tags of certain genes, an important factor in epigenetics.

“Epigenetic changes can result in differences in how a gene is expressed without altering the DNA sequence. We found that in devil tumours these tags have been removed over time. There were more tags 5 years ago than there are now. This suggests that more genes have been switched off in today’s tumours than those in the past,” Belov says.

Epigenetic changes can cause a tumour to become more aggressive or slow its development, but Ujvari says it is not yet clear in which direction the changes are going. “It is known that in human cancers methylation changes as they adapt to their environment,” Ujvari says.

Besides devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), the one transmissible cancer known is found in dogs. It is believed this was once lethal but evolved to become benign, giving hosts a greater chance to transmit the tumour. Ujvari expects that with time the same thing would happen to DFTD, but adds: “...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.