Scientists are hoping to develop a vaccine against an infectious cancer that is threatening the survival of the Tasmanian devil – made famous by the Warner Brothers cartoon character Taz.
The world’s largest remaining marsupial carnivore is in danger of becoming extinct in the wild because of the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) – a rare contagious facial tumour which emerged in a single Tasmanian devil more than 18 years ago.
The disease has spread rapidly throughout the only population left in the wild, on the island of Tasmania off Australia, and is threatening the survival of the species outside of captivity.
Now, Dr Hannah Siddle, of the University of Southampton, has been given £183,759 funding from the Leverhulme Trust to carry out research into how the disease moves between the animals with the hope of developing a vaccine.
Dr Siddle explained that the tumour cells pass between individuals during biting behaviour and tumours, which grow rapidly, form predominantly around the face and neck and cause almost 100% mortality.
She said: “This contagious cancer is very unusual in that the cancer cells can move between animals. We are looking for the proteins that make the tumour cells different to the host devils that they infect and then use these ‘tumour specific’ proteins to design a vaccine that will save the devil from extinction.
“We have an opportunity to develop an effective vaccine against a disease that is rapidly destroying a unique and important species.
“The Tasmanian devil is the top carnivore in Tasmania and its loss would be a disastrous outcome for the ecosystem.
“It has proven impossible to prevent the spread of DFTD and only a successful vaccine will allow captive, immunised animals to be released into the wild, eventually eradicating the disease.”
She added that the research would also enhance understanding of how cancers avoid the immune system, which could have implications for cancer treatment in humans.