Nav: Home

Researchers one step closer to understanding deadly facial tumor in Tasmanian devils

May 04, 2017

New findings in research funded by Morris Animal Foundation offer valuable insight on how to fight devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) that has resulted in a catastrophic decline in wild Tasmanian devils. Researchers have shed light on how the tumors successfully evade the immune system, which may offer possible strategies to protect the endangered devils from this devastating disease.

"We've had incremental progress in our understanding of devil facial tumor disease over the past two decades," said Dr. Andy Flies, a Morris Animal Foundation-funded researcher and one of the study's authors. "Low genetic diversity was initially thought to be the primary reason for the fatal transmissible tumors, but more recently it was discovered that DFT cells hide from the immune system by not expressing key immune recognition molecules, a sort of invisibility cloak for cancer cells."

Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) was discovered in 1996 and kills nearly every devil it infects, with some experts estimating a decrease of 90 percent or more in wild devil populations. One of just three known contagious cancers (the other two are a transmissible venereal tumor in dogs and a water-borne leukemia in soft-shell clams), researchers believe DFTD is transferred between individuals through biting behaviors. The disease first struck populations in northeastern Tasmania, but now encompasses most of the geographic range of Sarcophilus harrisii, threatening the iconic devil with extinction.

Dr. Flies and his collaborators searched for a very specific cell surface molecule, called PD-L1, on tumor samples from Tasmanian devils. Strong evidence exists in other species, including people, that when cells express high levels of PD-L1, it can shield cells from attacks by the immune system.

"Our discovery that DFT cells produce the PD-L1 'molecular shield' in response to inflammation represents another important step toward understanding DFTD and developing more potent ways of preventing or treating the facial tumors," said Dr. Flies, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Tasmania, Australia. "DFTs probably have more ways to hide from or suppress the immune system of the Tasmanian devil, and our ongoing research efforts aim to uncover and counteract these mechanisms."

"We are excited to support this critical work to protect the health of Tasmanian devils," said Morris Animal Foundation Chief Scientific Officer Barbara Wolfe, DVM, PhD, DACZM. "As a nonprofit dedicated to improving the health of animals through science and education, Morris Animal Foundation only funds projects with the highest scientific rigor. Dr. Flies' work is already showing results."

Dr. Flies' primary research interest lies in developing an immunotherapy treatment, such as a vaccine, for DFTD. The devil immunology team is currently performing functional tests on newly created antibodies to see if they can "release the brakes" on the devil immune system and allow devil T cells to kill tumor cells. His team also is working toward treatments for canine cancers.

Dr. Flies' discovery of the PD-L1 molecular shield has far-reaching implications beyond protecting Tasmanian devils from potential extinction. This finding helps researchers better understand cancer immunology through exploration of the interactions between the immune system and cancer cells. The PD-L1 molecular shield also has potential as a tool to improve transplant tolerance in multiple species.
-end-
Learn more about Dr. Flies' ongoing Tasmanian devil research at WildImmunity.com, on Twitter @WildImmunity, and on Facebook.

About Morris Animal Foundation

Morris Animal Foundation is a global leader in funding scientific studies that advance the health of companion animals, horses and wildlife. Since its founding in 1948, the Foundation has invested over $113 million in more than 2,500 studies that have led to significant breakthroughs in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases to benefit animals worldwide.

Media Contact:

Carol Borchert
Director of Communications
Morris Animal Foundation
303-708-3418

Morris Animal Foundation

Related Immune System Articles:

The immune system may explain skepticism towards immigrants
There is a strong correlation between our fear of infection and our skepticism towards immigrants.
New insights on how pathogens escape the immune system
The bacterium Salmonella enterica causes gastroenteritis in humans and is one of the leading causes of food-borne infectious diseases.
Understanding how HIV evades the immune system
Monash University (Australia) and Cardiff University (UK) researchers have come a step further in understanding how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) evades the immune system.
Carbs during workouts help immune system recovery
Eating carbohydrates during intense exercise helps to minimise exercise-induced immune disturbances and can aid the body's recovery, QUT research has found.
A new model for activation of the immune system
By studying a large protein (the C1 protein) with X-rays and electron microscopy, researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark have established a new model for how an important part of the innate immune system is activated.
Guards of the human immune system unraveled
Dendritic cells represent an important component of the immune system: they recognize and engulf invaders, which subsequently triggers a pathogen-specific immune response.
How our immune system targets TB
Researchers have seen, for the very first time, how the human immune system recognizes tuberculosis (TB).
How a fungus inhibits the immune system of plants
A newly discovered protein from a fungus is able to suppress the innate immune system of plants.
A new view of the immune system
Pathogen epitopes are fragments of bacterial or viral proteins. Nearly a third of all existing human epitopes consist of two different fragments.
TB tricks the body's immune system to allow it to spread
Tuberculosis tricks the immune system into attacking the body's lung tissue so the bacteria are allowed to spread to other people, new research from the University of Southampton suggests.

Related Immune System Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#SB2 2019 Science Birthday Minisode: Mary Golda Ross
Our second annual Science Birthday is here, and this year we celebrate the wonderful Mary Golda Ross, born 9 August 1908. She died in 2008 at age 99, but left a lasting mark on the science of rocketry and space exploration as an early woman in engineering, and one of the first Native Americans in engineering. Join Rachelle and Bethany for this very special birthday minisode celebrating Mary and her achievements. Thanks to our Patreons who make this show possible! Read more about Mary G. Ross: Interview with Mary Ross on Lash Publications International, by Laurel Sheppard Meet Mary Golda...