Tasmanian devils' cancer of the face was expected to make them extinct, but some of the ill-tempered marsupials have developed an evolutionary do-it-yourself cure.
A facial tumor first detected in Tasmanian devils in 1996 had wiped out about 80 percent of the population, said The Guardian. The tumor is just one of three transmissible cancers discovered outside of a laboratory.
Now a study published in the science journal Nature Communications says the devils may have developed their own response to the disease.
"Despite epidemiological models that predict extinction, populations in long-diseased sites persist," said the study. "(Devil facial tumor disease) DFTD spreads between hosts by suppressing and evading the immune system, and our results suggest that hosts are evolving immune-modulated resistance that could aid in species persistence in the face of this devastating disease."
Washington State University biology professor Andrew Storfer, lead author of the study, said said cancer was nearly 100 percent fatal when it was first detected.
"Our study suggests hope for the survival of the Tasmanian devil in the face of this devastating disease," Storfer said. "Ultimately, it may also help direct future research addressing important questions about the evolution of cancer transmissibility and what causes remission and reoccurrence in cancer and other diseases."
The researchers were able to examine Tasmanian devil DNA collected and stored before and after the cancer's outbreak from Menna Jones and her research team at the University of Tasmania. Jones, the study's co-author, worked with Storfer and other researchers from United States, Great Britain, and Australia to discover the animal's reaction to the cancer.
"If a disease comes in and knocks out 90 percent of the individuals, you might predict the 10 percent who survive are somehow genetically different," said Paul Hohenlohe, assistant professor of biology at the University of Idaho and another co-author. "What we were looking for were the parts of the genome that show that difference."
Researchers said they hope Tasmanian devils that appear resistant to the cancer can be bred to enhance their genetic diversity.
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