A rare, transmissible tumor has brought the Tasmanian devil to the brink of extinction, but new research by NSF-funded scientists at Washington State University and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center indicates hope for the animals' survival and possibly new treatments for human cancers.
Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions
I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.
(Sound effect: cartoon sounds) If everything you know about Tasmanian devils is from old cartoons, here's the real deal: Tasmania is an island state off the southeast coast of Australia where these carnivorous marsupials live. At the brink of extinction because of a rare transmissible face tumor that's devastating their ranks.
(Sound effect: Tasmanian devil sounds) Tazzies do get rowdy with each other--rough social play behavior that helps spread the disease. But they're ok with gentle handling by humans.
After studying the genome in cases where the devil facial tumor disease began disappearing on its own -- no drugs, no surgery -- researchers from Washington State University and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found a single genetic mutation that leads to reduced growth of the cancer in the wild.
The mutation turns a gene on (Sound effect: light switch) that -- at least in the lab -- was shown to slow tumor cell growth, making it a tool that could mean an 'about face' for the disease. This same gene is implicated in human prostate and colon cancers. The researchers say their findings might offer insights into someday tackling cancers without drugs or surgery.
Tasmanian devils have had a rough go. The cartoons, the tumors, and just having the word "devils" as part of their name. (Sound effect: Tasmanian devil short growl) Nice to see 'em get some good P.R. for a change.
"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at nsf.gov or on our podcast.
Images and other media in the National Science Foundation Multimedia Gallery are available for use in print and electronic material by NSF employees, members of the media, university staff, teachers and the general public. All media in the gallery are intended for personal, educational and nonprofit/non-commercial use only.
Images credited to the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, are in the public domain. The images were created by employees of the United States Government as part of their official duties or prepared by contractors as "works for hire" for NSF. You may freely use NSF-credited images and, at your discretion, credit NSF with a "Courtesy: National Science Foundation" notation.
Additional information about general usage can be found in Conditions.