Tasmanian devil colony shows immunity to cancer

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2008 file photo, Tex, a Tasmanian Devil, sits in his enclosure at Sydney's Taronga Zoo. Australian scientists say Wednesday, March 10, 2010, they have found a colony of Tasmanian devils that are genetically different from their peers and so far resistant to the face cancer that has decimated the population. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File) (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

March 10, 2010 5:32:41 AM PST
Australian scientists said Wednesday that the discovery of a genetically distinct colony of Tasmanian devils may save the species from being wiped out by a contagious cancer that has decimated the population.

So far, the colony in northwestern Tasmania state has proven immune to the face cancer that has ravaged the iconic animal - made famous worldwide by their Looney Tunes cartoon namesake, Taz.

"We think these devils may be able to see the cancer cells as foreign and mount an immune response against them," lead researcher Kathy Belov said. "We think more animals might survive in the wild than we initially thought."

The furry black animals spread a fast-killing cancer when they bite each other's faces. It causes grotesque facial tumors that eventually prevent them from feeding and can affect their internal organs.

Devil Facial Tumor Disease was discovered in 1996. Since then, the numbers of Tasmanian devils have plummeted by 70 percent. Last spring, Australia listed the devils as an endangered species and current estimates suggest the Tasmanian devil could be extinct within 25 years.

But Belov said the new findings buy more time for managing the disease and developing a vaccine.

Belov, of the University of Sydney, worked with fellow researchers at the University of Tasmania, who monitored populations across the island. While earlier studies had looked at devils in eastern Tasmania, this time they took a wider sampling of 400 devils across the state.

Twenty percent of those were found to be genetically different from the eastern devils, and so far have not caught the disease.

"I don't think this means that we can sit back and go, 'Everything is OK,' because we've already seen that the tumor has started to evolve," Belov cautioned. "But now we can say that we've got a glimmer of hope. There may be some animals that may survive this epidemic."

Another Tasmanian devil researcher, Hamish McCallum, said the discovery held "enormous promise."

"It's been my view for a long time that the best shot of solving the problem is if there is any genetic resistance in the devil population," said McCallum, who until last year worked with the federal government's devil rescue program.

"We have suspected for quite some time that there may have been animals with different genes in the northwest. ... What we don't know absolutely for sure is whether or not this genetic difference is sufficient for them not to get disease."

Federal Innovation Minister Kim Carr, whose department helped fund the research, said it was great news.

"There is now hope for their survival," Carr said in a statement.

The devils, known for powerful jaws, fierce screeches and voracious consumption of prey, are the world's largest marsupial carnivores. They don't exist in the wild outside Tasmania, an island south of Australia.