WASHINGTON – Fierce as they are, Tasmanian devils can’t beat a contagious cancer that threatens to wipe them out. Now scientists think they’ve found the disease’s origin, a step in the race to save Australia’s snarling marsupial.
The furry black animals spread a fast-killing cancer when they bite each other’s faces. Since the disease’s discovery in 1996, their numbers have plummeted by 70 percent. Last spring, Australia listed the devils as an endangered species.
There’s no treatment and little hope of finding one until scientists better understand what’s fueling this bizarre “devil facial tumor disease.” So an international research team picked apart the cancer’s genes and discovered that it apparently first arose in cells that protect the animals’ nerves.
The surprise finding, reported in today’s edition of the journal Science, has led to development of a test to help diagnose this tumor.
Next, scientists are hunting the mutations that turned these cells rogue, work they hope could one day lead to a vaccine to protect remaining Tasmanian devils, or perhaps treatments.
“The clock’s ticking,” lead researcher Elizabeth Murchison of the Australian National University said by phone from Tasmania. “It’s awful to think there could be no devils here in 50 years because they’re dying so quickly.”
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