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Natural Antibodies Could Combat Tasmanian Devil Cancer

Natural antibodies found in the immune system of Tasmanian devils could be harnessed to stop Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).

“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 Dr Beata Ujvari of Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology.

The research, published in Nature Scientific Reports (, examined levels of immunoglobulin-M and immunoglobulin-G in Tasmanian devils with and without DFTD. While levels of these immunoglobulins had no bearing on the disease, devils with greater IgM:IgG ratios were significantly less likely to have DFTD. “We can deduce then that devils with higher natural antibody ratio are therefore less susceptible to the contagious cancer,” Ujvari said.

The results could potentially halt the spread of disease that has devastated the Tasmanian devil population since its first sighting in 1996, hopefully enabling new vaccine and treatment options.

“Anti-tumour vaccines that enhance the production of these natural antibodies, or direct treatment of the cancer with natural antibodies, could become a solution to help halt this disease,” Ujvari said. “This process, known as ‘active immunotherapy’, is becoming more and more accepted in treating human cancers, and we think it could be the magic bullet in saving the Tasmanian devils from extinction.”

The research concluded that anti-tumour vaccines that enhance the production of IgM relative to IgG antibodies, or direct treatment with IgM antibodies, may therefore become an important component in combatting the devastating effects of DFTD. This conclusion is supported by other studies in mice that observed melanoma regression in response to increased IgM:IgG ratios.

Ujvari said that because the cancer was transmitted from devil to devil via biting during social interactions, their immune system should recognise the cells as foreign objects, like a pathogen, and work to eliminate them from the victim’s system. “However, this disease’s cells are able to avoid recognition by the devils’ immune systems and develop into large ulcerating tumours that ultimately kills the animals,” she said.