By Karis Tutuska ’18
Cancer is a scary word, but what is even more frightening is the concept of a contagious cancer. Sarcophilus harrisii, commonly known as Tasmanian devils, are large carnivorous marsupials, savage screechers, and voracious eaters. These organisms are plagued by deadly, fast-acting facial tumors that grow until they prevent the animal from eating and force starvation until death. What is unusual about these tumors is that they spread through biting. Until recently, the only other known cancer transmitted this way was canine transmissible venereal disease (CTVT).
As rare as one kind of infectious cancer is, a recent study at the University of Tasmania discovered a second kind of infectious cancer that afflicts Sarcophilus harrisii. The first kind of cancer, dubbed Devil Facial Tumor Disease 1 (DFT1) was discovered in 2002 and is believed to have come from a single genetic mutation in a nerve cell of a female devil. At the time, the disease spread so rapidly (in some cases, wiping out 89% of the population) that it threatened the devils with extinction. Researchers have been looking for a vaccine to protect the devil population, which is what lead them to discover DFT2.
Not much is known about DFT2, aside from the fact that it is genetically distinct from DFT1. Unlike DFT1, DFT2 cells contain Y-chromosomes, indicating that the disease originated from a male devil. Further research into a vaccine for DFTD may have to include this second strain of the disease.
- Charles Q. Choi, Tasmanian Devils’ Mysterious Cancer May Come in Two Varieties. Livescience.
- Image Acquired from: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beutelteufel