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Second contagious form of cancer found in Tasmanian devils

last modified Jun 16, 2016 04:20 PM
Transmissible cancers – cancers which can spread between individuals by the transfer of living cancer cells – are believed to arise extremely rarely in nature. One of the few known transmissible cancers causes facial tumours in Tasmanian devils, and is threatening this species with extinction. Today, scientists report the discovery of a second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils.

The discovery, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, calls into question our current understanding of the processes that drive cancers to become transmissible.

Tasmanian devils are iconic marsupial carnivores that are only found in the wild on the Australian island state of Tasmania. The size of a small dog, the animals have a reputation for ferocity as they frequently bite each other during mating and feeding interactions.

In 1996, researchers observed Tasmanian devils in the north-east of the island with tumours affecting the face and mouth; soon it was discovered that these tumours were contagious between devils, spread by biting. The cancer spreads rapidly throughout the animal’s body and the disease usually causes the death of affected animals within months of the appearance of symptoms. The cancer has since spread through most of Tasmania and has triggered widespread devil population declines. The species was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2008. Read more..