The Tasmanian devil, more than just a beloved cartoon character, faces extinction due to a rare infectious cancer against which the University of Southampton are leading novel vaccination strategies.
A team led by Dr. Hannah Siddle from Southampton University is aiming to develop a vaccine against Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), a rare contagious cancer that is ravaging the population of wild Tasmanian devils. The illness originated from Schwann cells, the cells responsible for coating nerve fibres, within an individual Tasmanian devil and was subsequently transmitted rapidly throughout the population by biting. The large tumours form predominantly around the face and neck, impeding feeding thus making starvation a common cause of death. With a mortality rate of close to 100 per cent, the disease has eliminated tens of thousands of Tasmanian devils since its discovery in the mid-1990s, its spread proving impossible to stem.
The implications of this research are abound; not only for the Tasmanian devil but for the treatment of human cancer.
With £183,759 funding from Leverhulme Trust under her belt, Dr. Siddle is embarking on a three-year research project with an international team of experts to investigate how DFTD moves between animals, and how to cure it. In order to design a vaccine against the disease, they are aiming to identify proteins that make the tumour cells distinct from the devil’s healthy cells, using these tumour-specific proteins to elicit selective recognition and destruction of cancer cells by the host’s immune system.
The research also aims to enhance understanding of how cancers evade the immune system, allowing them to survive and spread. Siddle’s research with the University of Cambridge has already made leaps in this area, as explored in a report published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. They discovered that the cancer cells do not produce major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a protein normally found on the surface of cells that is scanned by the immune system in order to detect threats such as viruses or tumours. This arose due to the ‘switching off’ of genes responsible for the production of three proteins involved in the transportation of MHC to the cell’s outer surface; B2-microglobin, TAP1 and TAP2. Siddle even succeeded in reversing this by artificially encouraging the production of MHC proteins using interferon-γ, a protein that stimulates the immune system.
Dr. Siddle stresses the importance of this research, calling the Tasmanian devil “a unique and important species (and) the top carnivore in Tasmania, (the loss of which) would be a disastrous outcome for the ecosystem.” The implications of this research are abound; not only for the Tasmanian devil but for the treatment of human cancer, particularly in the event that contagious cancer evolves mechanisms of infecting humans.