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New Tasmanian Devil Facial Cancer

Routine field research has identified a second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils that is very similar to Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). The new cancer has similarities to DFTD as it causes tumours, primarily on the face or inside the mouth, and is probably also spread between devils by biting.

Investigations into a possible second cancer began when researchers at the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research noticed cancer cells with features that weren’t typical of DFTD. Laboratory studies indicated that the case was a second, and therefore new, type of devil facial cancer.

Eight cases have been identified from the D’Entrecasteaux Channel area. “Fortunately this is similar to DFTD, and the procedures in place to deal with DFTD will be used to investigate this new cancer,” said Prof Greg Woods of the Menzies Institute. “Vaccine research will not be affected as the new cancer can be incorporated into the vaccine.”

When the different cancer cells were originally noticed ,the Cytogenetics Department of the Royal Hobart Hospital undertook chromosome analysis and established that the case was not DFTD. When a second apparent case of DFTD from the same geographical area was discovered with the same chromosomal abnormalities it became likely that this was a new transmissible cancer.

Dr Elizabeth Murchison from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, where genetic analysis of the new cancer took place, said that until now it had been thought that transmissible cancers arose extremely rarely in nature. “It makes us wonder whether transmissible cancers may not be as rare in nature as we previously thought. Alternatively, perhaps Tasmanian devils are particularly vulnerable to the emergence of transmissible cancers.”

Because there are now two types of devil facial cancers, the original transmissible cancer (first identified at the Mt William National Park) will be referred to as DFT1 and the second transmissible cancer (first identified in the Channel area) will be referred to as DFT2. Collectively they will be known as DFTD.

The research was published in PNAS (www.tinyurl.com/jmar2u7).