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August 13, 2020


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

Saving face.

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.

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