Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Catching cancer: Lessons from the Tasmanian Devil

So, lately I have decided to stay 'up to date' on the latest 'cool science' by listening to the Science magazine podcast. I must admit that I often download these podcasts and rarely get the opportunity to listen to them, but on the plane flying back to Ottawa last night, I picked it up again.

So, this month in Science magazine (abstract found here and Time magazine article found here) there was a manuscript that describes the genetic analysis of a strange tumour found in the marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil. We usually associate this animal with the crazy animated Looney Toon, but in reality, they are an endangered species, partially due to a facial cancer that is passed from animal to animal through biting. These tumours get so large, that the animal ends up dying of starvation. However, what's interesting is that is transmitted from animal to animal. It is also not associated with any virus, such as cancers in humans like HPV and cervical cancer. Also, cancers that are transmitted in this way are relatively rare in nature. There is another cancer in dogs that is sexually transmitted that if you're interested in you can learn more about here.

This Science report demonstrates that this Tasmanian Devil tumour is actually derived from Schwann Cells. For those of you who aren't scientists, these are the cells that produce myelin, a protein that protects the neurons in the brain and spinal cord, and is destroyed in multiple sclerosis. The authors hope that determining this will help the animals by providing a genetic test for the disease. In the wild, they are also trying to protect the devils by producing areas where the cancer containing animals are no longer present, or cancer-free islands.

As a cancer researcher, this is cool stuff. I have heard of the role of viruses in cancer, but a cancer passed from one individual to another just by the cancer itself is unique. And all in a little marsupial. Makes you wonder how much else we can learn from nature if we just open our eyes.

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