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Tasmanian devils could be saved from extinction with human cancer drugs

Two strains of transmissible cancer cause disfiguring facial tumours among the animals.

Human drugs could be used to treat cancers which are putting Tasmanian devils at risk of extinction, scientists say.

Two transmissible strains of the disease, which cause disfiguring facial tumours, have spread among the marsupials and led to a significant decline in populations.

However drugs developed for human cancer were able to stop the growth of devil cancer cells in a lab, researchers from the University of Cambridge found.

The study, published in journal Cancer Cell, has raised hopes of developing a treatment to save the animals.

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Dr Elizabeth Murchison, from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, said: “The story of Tasmanian devils in recent years has been a very concerning one.

“This study gives us optimism that anti-cancer drugs that are already in use in humans may offer a chance to assist with conservation efforts for this iconic animal.”

Tasmanian devils and dogs are the only mammals affected by rare transmissible cancers.

The first strain, devil facial tumour one (DFT1), occurred in a single animal decades ago and was observed for the first time in 1996, but has since spread throughout the island of Tasmania.

A second strain, devil facial tumour two (DFT2), was discovered in 2014 and is currently confined to a peninsula in the south east.

While the two are biologically different, they are visibly similar and both are thought to be passed between devils through the transfer of living cancer cells when they bite each other.

The cancer causes disfiguring facial tumours which usually kill the animals.

A research team led by Dr Murchison analysed the profiles of the two strains and found molecules known as receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) played an important role in sustaining the growth and survival of both DFT cancers.

Drugs targeting RTKs have already been developed for human cancer and were found to efficiently stop the growth of devil cancer cells in a lab setting.

The researchers also suggest the transmissible cancers arise naturally in Tasmanian devils, after finding no evidence they are caused by external factors or viruses.

Maximilian Stammnitz, one of the authors of the study, said: “When fighting, Tasmanian devils often bite their opponent’s face, which may predispose these animals to the emergence of this particular type of cancer via tissue injury.

“As biting occurs on the face, this would simultaneously provide a route of cell transmission.”

They speculate that as RTK molecules play a significant role in the healing of wounds, DFT cancers may develop from errors in cells involved in tissue repair after injury.

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