Devil facial tumour disease

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Devil facial tumour disease causes tumours to form in and around the mouth, interfering with feeding and eventually leading to death by starvation.

Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is an aggressive non-viral transmissible parasitic cancer among Tasmanian devils.[1][2][3][4][better source needed]

The first official case of DFTD was described in 1996 in Australia.[5] In the subsequent decade the disease ravaged Tasmania's wild devils, with estimates of decline ranging from 20% to as much as 50% of the devil population, across over 65% of the state.[6][7] Affected high-density populations suffer up to 100% mortality in 12–18 months.[8] The disease has mainly been concentrated in Tasmania's eastern half. Visible signs of DFTD begin with lesions and lumps around the mouth. These develop into cancerous tumours that may spread from the face to the entire body. Devils usually die within six months from organ failure, secondary infection, or metabolic starvation as the tumours interfere with feeding.[9] As of 2010, 80% of population is infected,[citation needed] and only 0.1% is not affected.[clarification needed][citation needed] DFTD affects males and females equally.[10] As of 2010, the population had been reduced by 70% (from 1996 census data), and if a cure is not found, a prediction has been made that the species will become extinct by 2035.[11][better source needed]

The most plausible route of transmission is through biting, particularly when canine teeth come into direct contact with the diseased cells.[12][citation needed] Other modes of transmission that cannot be discounted, yet haven't been conclusively proven, are the ingesting of an infected carcass and the sharing of food, both of which involve an allogeneic transfer of cells between unrelated individuals.[13][page needed][verification needed][14]

As of 2010, six females had been reported to have been found with partial immunity to DTF, and breeding in captivity was begun in an attempt to save the population.[11][better source needed]


DFTD tumours are "large, solid, soft tissue masses usually with flattened, centrally ulcerated, and exudative surfaces", which are "typically multicentric, appearing first in the oral, face, or neck regions", and are "circumscribed to infiltrative nodular aggregates of round to spindle-shaped cells, often within a pseudocapsule and divided into lobules by delicate fibrous septae".[15] The disease is described as being aggressive, locally.[16]

As Iain O'Neill notes, it also presents a "high rate of regional lymph node involvement and systemic metastasis"; of the avenues by which the cancer can spread systemically, metastasis to the lungs, spleen, and heart are observed, as is secondary "intracranial involvement".[16] O'Neill also notes that "organ involvement and superimposed infection may... contribute to mortality."[16] Moreover, growth of large tumours impedes feeding, and starvation is another cause of death in affected devils. [17]

Characteristics and mechanism[edit]

A virus was initially thought to be the cause of DFTD,[18][better source needed] but no evidence of such a virus could be detected in the cancer cells.[citation needed] Calicivirus, 1080 poison, agricultural chemicals, and habitat fragmentation combined with a retrovirus were other proposed causes.[19] Environmental toxins had also been suspected.[20] In March 2006 a devil escaped from a park into an area infected with DFTD. She was recaptured with bite marks on her face, and returned to live with the other devils in the park. She wounded a male and by October both devils had DFTD, which was subsequently spread to two others (an incident that in retrospect would be understood in the context of the allograft theory of transmission, see following).[21]

To understand the cause that was eventually found, it is important to understand that Tasmanian devil cells have 14 chromosomes; the oldest-known strain of the tumour cells, when these were studied, were shown to contain thirteen chromosomes, nine of which are recognizable and four of which are mutated “marker” chromosomes.[citation needed][22][better source needed] More recently evolved strains have an additional mutant marker chromosome, for a total of fourteen chromosomes.[23][non-primary source needed][24][non-primary source needed] Researchers identified the cancer as a neuroendocrine tumour, and found identical chromosomal rearrangements in all the cancer cells.[25][better source needed] The karyotype anomalies of DFTD cells are similar to those of cancer cells from canine transmissible venereal tumour (CTVT), a cancer of dogs that is transmitted by physical contact.[25][better source needed] Among the mutations present in the tumour genome is trisomy in chromosome 5p, as well as several single base mutations, and short insertions and deletions, e.g., deletions in the chromosomes 1, 2 and 3. Some of the mutated or deleted genes in DFTD are RET, FANCD2, MAST3 and BTNL9-like gene.[26][non-primary source needed]

The theory that cancer cells themselves could be an infective agent (the Allograft Theory[27]) was first offered in 2006 by Pearse, Swift, and colleagues,[citation needed] who analyzed DFTD cells from devils in several locations, determining that all DFTD cells sampled were genetically identical to each other, and genetically distinct from their hosts and from all other individual Tasmanian devils whose genetics had been studied; this allowed them to conclude that the cancer originated from a single individual and spread from it, rather than arising repeatedly, and independently.[27][non-primary source needed][27][28][29][better source needed] Twenty one different subtypes have been identified by analyzing the mitochondrial and nuclear genomes of 104 tumours from different Tasmanian devils.[26][non-primary source needed] Researchers have also witnessed a previously-uninfected devil develop tumours from lesions caused by an infected devil’s bites, supporting the contention that the disease is spread by allograft, with transmission via biting, scratching, and aggressive sexual activity between individuals.[30][31] News reports have reported speculation that the disease is spread by devils biting each other during the mating season.[32]

Since June 2005, three females have been found that are partially resistant to DFTD.[citation needed][33] Further research has shown that the infectious facial cancer may be able to spread because of low diversity in devil immune genes (MHC class I and II).[citation needed][34][better source needed] The same genes are also found in the tumours, so the devil's immune system does not recognize the tumour cells as foreign.[35][36][better source needed]

As of this date,[when?] there are at least four strains of the cancer, which, with its monoclonal origin,[citation needed] supports the conclusion that it is evolving.[citation needed][37] Increased levels of tetraploidy have been shown to exist in the oldest strain of DFTD as of 2014, which correlates with the point at which devils became involved in a DFTD removal programme.[citation needed] Because ploidy slows the tumour growth rate, the DFTD removal programme has been suggested as a selective pressure favouring slower-growing tumours, and more generally that disease eradication programmes aimed at DFTD may encourage the evolution of DFTD.[38][non-primary source needed] The existence of multiple strains may complicate attempts to develop a vaccine, and there are reports of concerns that the evolution of the cancer may allow it to spread to related species such as the quoll.[citation needed][39][better source needed]

An international team of researchers reported in Science in January 2010 that DFTD likely originated in the Schwann cells of a single devil.[40][23] Schwann cells are found in the peripheral nervous system, and produce myelin and other proteins essential for the functions of nerve cells in the peripheral nervous system.[citation needed][41][42][better source needed] BBC reported that the researchers sampled 25 tumours and found that the tumours were genetically identical.[41][better source needed] Using deep sequencing technology, the study authors then profiled the tumours' transcriptome, the set of genes that are active in tumours; Time magazine reported that the transcriptomes closely matched those of Schwann cells, revealing high activity in many of the genes coding for myelin basic protein production.[42][better source needed] Several specific markers were identified by the team, including the MBP and PRX genes, which may enable veterinarians to more easily distinguish DFTD from other types of cancer, and may eventually help identify a genetic pathway that can be targeted to treat it.[42][better source needed]

Due to the decreased life expectancy of the devils with DFTD, effected individuals[verification needed] have begun breeding at younger ages in the wild, with reports that many only live to participate in one breeding cycle.[43] Hence, Tasmanian devils appear to have changed breeding habits in response to the disease;[citation needed] females had previously begun to breed annually at age two, for about three more years, dying thereafter of a variety of causes.[citation needed] Populations are now characterised by onset of breeding at age one, dying of DFTF, on average, shortly thereafter.[citation needed] Social interactions have been seen to contribute to spread of DFTD in a local area.[44]

In 2015, a variant form of the cancer was described which was tetraploid, not diploid like the main form of the cancer. The tetraploid form has been linked to lower mortality rates.[45]

Ongoing research[edit]

In 2010, EBC-46, a drug which cures facial tumours in dogs, cats, and horses, was proposd as a cure for DFTD.[citation needed][46][better source needed]

Vaccination with irradiated cancer cells has not proven successful.[citation needed][47]

A primary research report in 2011 has suggested that picking a genetically diverse breeding stock, defined by the genome sequence, may help with for conservation efforts.[48]

As of 2011, there was ongoing support for a research team of David Phalen and colleagues to investigate chemotherapeutic agents against DFTD.[49]

In 2013, a study using mice as a model for Tasmanian devils suggested that a DFTD vaccine or treatment could be beneficial.[50] In 2015, a study which mixed dead DFTD cells with an inflammatory substance stimulated an immune response in five out of six devils injected with the mixture, engendering for a vaccine against DFTD.[51][52] Field testing of the potential vaccine is being undertaken as a collaborative project between the Menzies Institute for Medical Research and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program under the Wild Devil Recovery program, and aims to test the immunisation protocol as a tool in ensuring the devil's long term survival in the wild.[53]

In March 2017, scientists at the University of Tasmania presented an apparent first report of having successfully treated Tasmanian devils suffering from the disease, by injecting live cancer cells into the infected devils to stimulate their immune system to recognise the disease and fight it off.[54][55]

Preservation response[edit]

Wild Tasmanian devil populations are being monitored to track the spread of the disease and to identify changes in disease prevalence. Field monitoring involves trapping devils within a defined area to check for the presence of the disease and determine the number of affected animals. The same area is visited repeatedly to characterise the spread of the disease over time. So far, it has been established that the short-term effects of the disease in an area can be severe. Long-term monitoring at replicated sites will be essential to assess whether these effects remain, or whether populations can recover.[7] Field workers are also testing the effectiveness of disease suppression by trapping and removing diseased devils, with the expectation that removal of diseased devils from wild populations would decrease disease prevalence, allowing devils to survive beyond juvenile years and so to breed.[7] One study reported that an system of culling prior to 2010 did not impede disease spread.[56][non-primary source needed]

Two "insurance" populations of disease-free devils have been established at an urban facility in the Hobart suburb of Taroona and on Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania.[57]

The decline in devil numbers is also seen as an ecological problem, since its presence in the Tasmanian forest ecosystem is believed to have prevented the establishment of the red fox, with the most recent known organism accidentally being introduced into Tasmania in 1998.[58][59][better source needed] Tasmanian devil young may now be more vulnerable to red fox predation, as pups are left alone for long periods of time.[verification needed][60] Recent studies have shown that credible sightings of foxes occur mostly in areas where Tasmanian devil populations have been suppressed by DFTD. [61]

In response to the impact of DFTD on Tasmanian devil populations, 47 devils have been shipped to mainland Australian wildlife parks to attempt to preserve the genetic diversity of the species. The largest of these efforts is the Devil Ark project in Barrington Tops, New South Wales; an initiative of the Australian Reptile Park. This project aims to create a set of one thousand genetically representative devils, and is now a major focus of the insurance policy.[62] In addition, the Tasman peninsula is being considered as a possible "clean area" with the single narrow access point controlled by physical barriers. The Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries and Water is experimenting on culling infected animals with some signs of success.[63][full citation needed][64]

A diagnostic blood test was developed in mid-2009 to screen for the disease.[65] In early 2010, scientists found some Tasmanian devils, mostly in the north-west of Tasmania, that are genetically different enough for their bodies to recognise the cancer as foreign. They have only one Major Histocompatibility Complex, whereas the cancerous cells have both.[citation needed][66][better source needed]

A study recommended oocyte banking be used in the conservation effort for Tasmanian devils, as the survival rate of the oocytes in their study was 70%.[67]


Spread of the disease as of 2015[68]

In 1996, a photographer from The Netherlands[69] captured several images of devils with facial tumours near Mount William in Tasmania's northeast. Around the same time, farmers reported a decline in devil numbers.[70] Menna Jones first encountered the disease in 1999 near Little Swanport, in 2001 capturing three devils with facial tumours on the Freycinet Peninsula.[71]

The devil population on the peninsula decreased dramatically. In March 2003 Nick Mooney wrote a memo to be circulated within the Parks and Wildlife Services calling for more funding to study the disease, but the call for funding was edited out before the memo was presented to Bryan Green, then Tasmania's Minister for Primary Industries, Water and Environment.[72][73] In April 2003, a working group was formed by the Tasmanian Government to respond to the disease.[74] In September 2003, Nick Mooney went to the Tasmanian daily newspaper The Mercury, informing the general public of the disease and proposing a quarantine of healthy Tasmanian devils. At the time, it was thought that a retrovirus was a possible cause. David Chadwick of the state Animal Health Laboratory said that the laboratory did not have the resources needed to research the possibility of a retrovirus. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust criticised the Tasmanian government for providing insufficient funds for research and suggested that DFTD could be zoonotic, posing a threat to livestock and humans.[18] On 14 October 2003, a workshop was held in Launceston.[75] In 2004, Kathryn Medlock found three oddly shaped devil skulls in European museums and found a description of a devil in London Zoo dying, which showed a similarity to DFTD.[76]

In 2006, DFTD was classed a List B notifiable disease under theAnimal Health Act 1995.[77][78] the strategy of developing an insurance population in captivity was developed. It was reassessed in 2008.[79] A 2007 investigation into the immune system of the devils found that when combatting other pathogens, the response from the immune system was normal, leading to suspicion that the devils were not capable of detecting the cancerous cells as "non-self".[80] In 2007, it was predicted that populations could become locally extinct within 10–15 years of DFTD occurring, and predicted that the disease would spread across the entire range of the Tasmanian devils. This study also predicted that Tasmanian devils would become extinct within 25–35 years.[81][non-primary source needed]

In 2008, high levels of potentially carcinogenic flame retardant chemicals were found in Tasmanian devils. Preliminary results of tests of fat tissue revealed high levels of hexabromobiphenyl (BB153) and "reasonably high" levels of decabromodiphenyl ether (BDE209).[82]

In 2016, devils are at the verge of extinction as the localized populations were shown to be declined by 90 percent and an overall species decline of more than 80 percent in less than 20 years, with some models predicting extinction. Despite this, devil populations persist in disease-stricken areas.[83] The devils have, in a way, fought back the extinction by developing the gene that is immune to face tumors. The genes have already existed in the Tasmanian devil as part of their immune system. They increased in frequency due to natural selection. That is, the individuals with particular forms of these genes (alleles) survived and reproduced disproportionately to those that lacked the specific variants when disease was present.[84]

In other animals[edit]

Transmissible cancer, caused by a clone of malignant cells rather than a virus,[85] is an extremely rare disease modality, [86] with few transmissible cancers being known[87]canine transmissible venereal tumour (CTVT), which is sexually transmitted among dogs, or contagious reticulum cell sarcoma of the Syrian hamster,[88] which can be transmitted via mosquito bites of Aedes aegypti.[89] Those two species, coupled with the two types of transmissible cancer present in Tasmanian devils, are the only mammals that currently have been identified. CTVT mutes the expression of the immune response, whereas the Syrian hamster disease spreads due to lack of genetic diversity.[90] However, there are some non-mammalian species that seem likely to also have some sort of transmissible cancer. The soft shell clam (Mya arenaria) is theorized to be the fourth species afflicted by transmissible cancer. [91][92]

In popular culture[edit]

In 2008, a devil—given the name Cedric by those who treated and worked with him—was thought to have a natural immunity to the disease, but developed two facial tumours in late 2008. The tumours were removed,[93] and officials thought Cedric was recovering well; but in September 2010, the cancer was discovered to have spread to the lungs, leading to his euthanasia.[94]

See also[edit]

Books cited[edit]

References and notes[edit]

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