SYDNEY – Australian scientists hailed a breakthrough discovery in the hunt for a vaccine against a savage facial tumor disease threatening the endangered Tasmanian devil with extinction.
A research team headed by University of Tasmania immunologist Greg Woods said Tuesday it has established how the disfiguring cancer, spread from devil to devil by biting during fights, manages to take hold and grow so rapidly. Devil facial tumor disease typically causes death within three to six months and has seen the animal’s numbers plunge 91 percent in the wild to near-critical levels.
But Woods said his team found a key immune-triggering marker usually seen on the surface of mammalian cells, called the major histocompatibility complex molecule (MHC), was not found in diseased cells on the devils.
Without MHC markers, the tumor’s cells were not seen as foreign by the devils’ immune systems and allowed to proliferate. Importantly, Woods said the genetic code for MHC molecules remained intact in diseased cells, meaning they could potentially be switched back on.