The complete genome of a female Tasmanian devil, which may be the original victim of a facial cancer that has been plaguing the species since the 1990s, has been sequenced.
The Tasmanian devil, Sarcophilus harrisii, is currently under threat from this highly contagious cancer, Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), which spreads through biting. The animals develop large tumors on their heads, eventually dying from starvation or suffocation.
Tasmanian-born scientist Elizabeth Murchison has been working with other researchers at the UK’s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to identify genetic mutations in the cancer. They used tissue from a dead female in their study.
“There are targeted drugs that work against cancer genes,” Murchison said in a press release. “We hope some of the mutations that we have found in genes in the devil cancer may point to therapeutic strategies.”
The team found over 17,000 mutations, which is similar to the number that occurs in some human cancers. They believe that changes in the genes controlling the immune system could be responsible for the cancer’s rapid spread.
The cancer genome appears to be relatively stable. “The genetic differences between 104 Tasmanian devil tumors from all around the island present us with a remarkably clear picture of how the cancer has spread in time and space over the last couple of decades, which may help with strategies for disease containment,” said study senior author Michael Stratton in the release.
Following the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger, thought to have died out in the 1930s, the scientists are hopeful that their work may help protect the devils from extinction.
“It would be really sad to lose our two largest marsupial carnivores, and within 100 years of each other,” Murchison concluded.
The findings were published online in the journal Cell on Feb. 17.