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A vaccine to save devils?

Vicki at a devil sanctuary in Tasmania. Photo:
Robin Ugurlu.

Vicki at Cradle Mountain Finally, there might be a breakthrough in the effort to save Tasmanian devils.

The beautiful and much maligned marsupials have been dying of a strange and contagious cancer—called devil facial tumor disease—since 1996. Since that time as much as 70 percent of the population may have been lost.

The disease causes huge tumors on the animals’ faces and is spread when they bite each other, which happens often in competition around carcasses.

I’ve had a soft spot for these odd little animals for a long time, and I got to meet several of them at the Devils@Cradle Sanctuary in Tasmania in 2010. Back then, the fight to save devils was already in full swing and the sanctuary was breeding healthy individuals in the race to beef up the population.
We think Tasmanian devils are beautiful and we hope there's a breakthrough in the fight to save them. Photo: Robin Ugurlu.

We think Tasmanian devils are beautiful and we hope there’s a breakthrough in the fight to save them. Photo: Robin Ugurlu.

Contagious cancers are very rare, and, in this case, scientists think they’ve spotted the way this one sneaks by the immune system. It’s by shutting off certain genes. The important part of this discovery is that they may be able to switch those genes back on.

There has been an intense effort to save these animals, and there is great hope for this new discovery. According to the journal
Nature:

“It’s probably the most promising lead we’ve had for a vaccine since the initial characterization of the disease,” says immunogeneticist Hannah Siddle of the University of Cambridge, UK, who is first author of the report, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

–Vicki Croke

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