New research into the way the Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease is spread may hold the key to saving the iconic species.
How the disease became transmittable has puzzled scientists since the discovery of the disease because tumours usually exclusively grow where their cell of origin derives from.
A research collaboration between the CeMM Research Centre for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine and the Medical University of Vienna has revealed molecular mechanisms that are crucial for the transmissibility of the tumour.
CeMM research co-author Lindsay Kosack said the research could play an important role for the treatment of the disease before the devil becomes extinct.
“Our experiments show for the first time that the excessive activation of ERBB receptions and STAT3 proteins play a key role in the transmissibility of the Tasmanian devil’s facial tumour,” Mr Kosack said.
“We showed in further experiments that the inhibition of ERBB receptors with a drug can selectively kill the cancer cells.”
CeMM principal investigator Andreas Bergthaler said the aggressive biting behavior of the animals seems to play an important role in tumour transmission.
Mr Bergthaler said the the study is not only a contribution to save the marsupial species.
“Scientific aspects of cancer, contagious diseases and inflammatory processes can be studied with this rare phenomenon.”
Mr Bergthaler said it is unlikely, but not impossible, that a human cancer would become transmissible.
“Nevertheless, a better molecular understanding of this rare disease can provide valuable insights on fundamental biological mechanisms of cancer development,” he said.