Nav: Home

The curious tale of the cancer 'parasite' that sailed the seas

August 01, 2019

A contagious canine cancer that conquered the world by spreading between dogs during mating likely arose around 6,000 years ago in Asia and spread around the globe through maritime activities, scientists say.

A detailed genetic study, published today in Science, reveals some surprising - and even mysterious - findings about how this cancer, that has survived for thousands of years, has mutated and evolved over time.

'Canine transmissible venereal tumour' is a cancer that spreads between dogs through the transfer of living cancer cells, primarily during mating. The disease usually manifests as genital tumours in both male and female domestic dogs. It first arose in an individual dog, but survived beyond the death of the original dog by spreading to new dogs. The cancer is now found in dog populations worldwide, and is the oldest and most prolific cancer lineage known in nature.

One of the most remarkable aspects of these tumours is that their cells are those of the original dog in which the cancer arose, and not the carrier dog. The only differences between cells in the modern dogs' tumours and cells in the original tumour are those that have arisen over time either through spontaneous changes in the cells' DNA or through changes caused by carcinogens.

An international team of researchers, led by scientists at the Transmissible Cancer Group at the University of Cambridge, has compared differences in tumours taken from 546 dogs worldwide to try to understand how the disease arose and how it managed to spread around the world.

"This tumour has spread to almost every continent, evolving as it spreads," says Adrian Baez-Ortega, a PhD student in the Transmissible Cancer Group, part of Cambridge's Department of Veterinary Medicine. "Changes to its DNA tell a story of where it has been and when, almost like a historical travel journal."

Using the data, they created a phylogenetic tree - a type of family tree of the different mutations in the tumours. This allowed them to estimate that the cancer first arose between 4,000 and 8,500 years ago, most likely in Asia or Europe. All of the modern tumours can be traced back to a common ancestor around 1,900 years ago.

The researchers say that the cancer first spread from Europe to the Americas around 500 years ago, when European settlers first arrived at the continent by sea. Almost all the tumours found today in North, Central and South America descend from this single introduction event.

From the Americas, the disease spread further, to Africa and back into the Indian subcontinent - almost all places that were, at the time, European colonies. For example, the cancer is seen in Reunion, but this was where European travellers would stop off on the way to India. All of this evidence suggests that the tumour was spread by sea-faring dogs, transported through maritime activities.

While the findings related to the historical spread of the disease are interesting, it is the tumour's evolution that particularly excites the researchers.

Recent developments in cancer biology have enabled scientists to look at the mutations in tumour DNA and identify unique signatures left by carcinogens. This allows them to see, for example, the damage that ultraviolet (UV) light causes.

Using these techniques, the researchers identified signatures for five different biological processes that have damaged the canine tumour over its history. Four of these, including exposure to UV light, are known processes already linked to human cancers. However, one of them - termed 'Signature A' - has a very distinctive mutational signature, different to any seen previously: it caused mutations only in the tumour's distant past, several thousand years ago, and has never been seen since.

"This is really exciting - we've never seen anything like the pattern caused by this carcinogen before," says Dr Elizabeth Murchison, who leads the Transmissible Cancer Group at the University of Cambridge.

"It looks like the tumour was exposed to something thousands of years ago that caused changes to its DNA for some length of time and then disappeared. It's a mystery what the carcinogen could be. Perhaps it was something present in the environment where the cancer first arose."

Another intriguing discovery related to how the tumours evolve. There are two main types of selection in evolutionary theory - positive and negative. Positive selection is where mutations that provide an organism with a particular advantage are more likely to be passed down generations; negative selection is where mutations that are likely to have a deleterious effect are less likely to be passed on. Such selection tends to occur by way of sexual reproduction.

When the researchers analysed the tumours, they found no evidence of either positive or negative selection. This implies that the tumour will be accumulating more and more potentially damaging mutations over time, making it less and less fit to its environment.

Baez-Ortega explains: "Normally, we see selection pressures acting on an organism's evolution. These canine tumours are foreign bodies, so one would expect to see a battle between them and the dog's immune system, leading to only the strongest tumours successfully being transmitted. This doesn't seem to be happening here.

"This cancer 'parasite' has proved remarkably successful at surviving over thousands of years, yet is steadily deteriorating. It suggests that its days may be numbered - but it's likely to be tens of thousands of years before it disappears."
-end-
The research was supported by Wellcome, the Leverhulme Trust and the Kennel Club Charitable Trust.

Reference

A. Baez-Ortega et al. Somatic evolution and global expansion of an ancient transmissible cancer lineage. Science 365, eaau9923 (2019). DOI: 10.1126/science.aau9923.

University of Cambridge

Related Science Articles:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.
Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.
Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.
World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.
PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.
More Science News and Science Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.