It’s been 20 years since devil facial tumour disease was first discovered in the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian devil. Since then the contagious cancer has been aggressively ravaging devil populations across the island.
Now a team of Aussie researchers have made an exciting discovery—some wild devils are able to mount an immune response against the disease, leading to regression of the tumours and eventual recovery.
The team tested 52 wild Tassie devils from a closely monitored population in north-western Tasmania, trapping them and collecting serum samples over a period of four years.
Thirty-six of the devils either already had the facial tumour disease, or caught it during the research period. Sadly, most of them succumbed to the cancer as usual.
However, to researchers’ surprise, six animals actually developed tumour antibodies in their blood after they contracted the illness. This means their immune system detected the invasive cancer cells and mounted a response.
Just like the human body can fight off a flu virus, the devils with the antibodies were able to fight the cancer. In fact, the tumours actually regressed in four of the six animals. It’s tricky to tell how it improved their overall survival, because not all of them were trapped again for further tests.
Still, it’s an encouraging development. While scientists have been able to induce an immune response in captive Tassie devils, this is the first time their wild counterparts have exhibited this ability naturally. The researchers are cautiously optimistic about this finding.
“If there is a heritable component to the immune response, over time selection should favour those individuals that are able to recognise the tumour,” the authors write in the paper, recently published in Biology Letters.
So, if more naturally immune devils survive the cancer, eventually enough of the population will have the antibodies necessary to keep it at bay. According to the researchers, these findings highlight a need for continuous monitoring of Tassie devils in the wild so that we can catch positive changes as they happen.
Can the Tasmanian devil be saved from extinction? Jason Donovan narrates the story of
15 Tassie devils from Australian wildlife sanctuaries as they are released on remote Maria Island
off the coast of Tasmania.
Find out more here and don’t miss Devil Island on 3 December 3 2.30pm AEDT on Nat Geo WILD