Study Finds Origin of Tasmanian Devil Cancer

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In those old Looney Tunes, the Tasmanian Devil was an unstoppable wrecking ball of an animal, spinning through walls and eating everything in sight.

In real life, the carnivorous marsupials are facing a deadly and mysterious disease that has been decimating their numbers since it was first reported in 1996.

A new article published today the journal Science sheds light on the origin of this cancer, called the devil facial tumor disease.

In the study, researchers from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Australian National University found that the disease originates from cells that protect and cushion nerve fibers, called Schwann cells.

The discovery comes from the international team's effort to carry out a genetic analysis of the tumors.

 Among their findings is that the cancer probably abandoned its original host long before becoming a parasite of the devils. They also confirmed that the tumors are passed from one devil to another by physical contact. The cancer cells that spread from animal to animal are genetically identical, each having originated from a single line of cells.

In the wild, the Tasmanian devil – the largest marsupial carnivore alive – has lost about 60 percent of its population in just the last decade. Experts say that without intervention, the disease could wipe them out within 50 years.

One positive note: the findings might make it possible for a cure in the future thanks to a common protein present in every tumor. According to the study, this protein, called periaxin, could be used to diagnose the disease and possibly exploited to find a cure.

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