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Devil's Cure to Cancer? Tasmanian Devil is Evolving to Fight Contagious Form of Disease

Aug 31, 2016 04:10 AM EDT

Tasmanian devils have been dealing with a particularly nasty form of cancer for around 20 years, but recent studies reveal there may be hope for these animals as nature takes its course.

DFTD and its Impact on Tasmanian Devil Population

According to a report from Discover Magazine, the nearly 100 percent fatal and highly contagious Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) wiped out about 80 percent of the species' numbers in just over 20 years. Distinguished by red oozing facial tumors, the cancer kills its victims within six months of transmission.

The incredibly rapid spread of DFTD among tasmanian devils are also due to the creatures' violent nature. Known for biting each other on the face during encounters, this activity created the perfect situation to transmit the infection as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In fact, the tasmanian devil populations on the eastern part of the island should have already dwindled to extinction. However, contratry to what's expected, the little devil is evolving.

Adapting to Combat Deadly Cancer

With samples from 294 tasmanian devils from three different populations, all of which were collected by biologist Menna Jones of the University of Tasmania, a team of international scientists found that two regions in the genomes of the animal are actually changing since the emergence of DFTD.

These changes suggest that the immune system may be adapting to recognize the cancer. The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

"Our study suggests hope for the survival of the Tasmanian devil in the face of this devastating disease," Andrew Storfer from Washington State University explained in a report from EurekAlert. "Ultimately, it may also help direct future research addressing important questions about the evolution of cancer transmissibility and what causes remission and reoccurrence in cancer and other diseases."

A Separate Cancer Discovered?

Despite the devil seemingly being able to evolve to survive DFTD, researchers found in 2015 that there is a second strain of the disease detected in eight of the species from southeast Tasmania. While this may seem like a huge blow to the species' progress in evolving to fight the disease, Storfer says that this might mean the devils have already dealt with this cancer in the past.

"Maybe they are just prone to transmissible cancers like this," Storfer pointed out. "Perhaps they've been through this before, and though devastating, they will make it again."

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