New hope for Tasmanian devils
Researcher Dr Deanne Whitworth and her colleagues at the University of Queensland, have taken the first step toward developing an effective treatment for devil facial tumour (DFTD), a disease decimating Tasmanian devils in the wild.
The University of Queensland team has been exploring the possibility of using stem-cell therapy to eradicate tumour cells from Tasmanian devils suffering from DFTD, a deadly transmissible cancer unique to this species. But first they had to find ways to grow and maintain marsupial stem cells, a feat that has not been realised until now.
Dr Whitworth and her team successfully generated Tasmanian devil stem cells in the laboratory. The team generated the cells as a first step toward developing a novel and effective treatment for devil facial tumour disease.
“Since its discovery in 1996, DFTD has decimated 95 per cent of the devil population,” said Dr Whitworth.
“It is estimated that within 20 to 30 years, the devil will be extinct in the wild. Our work is moving us closer to finding a strategy to prevent the spread of DFTD and to cure animals already infected with the disease.”
DFTD is a highly unique form of transmissible cancer that is passed from one devil to another through biting, a common behaviour that takes place during feeding and mating.
The vast majority of infected Tasmanian devils die within three to six months of developing visible tumours. Primary tumours typically develop on the face or inside the mouth, and quickly grow into large tumours that metastasize to the internal organs.
Currently there is no cure for or prevention against DFTD and researchers are racing to find ways to save these iconic animals.
The University of Queensland team hope that the devil stem cells may one day be used to kill existing tumours or provide immune protection against DFTD to help save Tasmanian devils from pending extinction.
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