Tasmanian Devils Have Developed Immune Resistance To Deadly Facial Cancer

The marsupials are ‘adapting to coexist’ with the tumors that killed a majority of the animal population.

For over 20 years, the existence of endangered Tasmanian devils has been threatened by Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD), which has killed off large numbers of the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials.

That is, until researchers found that their immune systems appear to be changing to fight the disease.

According to a coalition of scientists from Australia, France, UK, and US, the future for Tasmanian devils is looking a little brighter in light of the recent findings.

"In the past, we were managing devil populations to avoid extinction,” said Dr. Rodrigo Hamede from the University of Tasmania. “Now, we are progressively moving to an adaptive management strategy, enhancing those selective adaptations for the evolution of devil/DFTD coexistence.”

The disease was first discovered in northeastern Tasmania 22 years ago and has since eliminated over 90% of the species. But based on Dr. Hamede and his colleagues' research, they forecast that the disease will most likely fade out of existence completely or coexist with the species.

The disease spreads when devils bite one another's faces during fights. Biting is also a common behavior for the animals to socialize and assert dominance. "Our current hypothesis is that the biting doesn't only lead to the spread of tumours but it might be the starting point," said Max Stammnitz from the University of Cambridge, UK.

However, over the last 5 years, some of the animals have exhibited resistance and tolerance to infection. "Natural selection is trying to fix the problem on its own by favouring those who can survive the tumour, so we're more hopeful these days than ever before," Dr. Hamede said.

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