Look out Harry – invisibility cloaks don’t work on Tassie devils anymore

Or at least, not on six very important Tasmanian devils.

A study published in Biology Letters last October studied 52 wild devils, and found six who possessed never-before-seen antibodies against the deadly devil facial tumour disease, or DFTD for short.

Tasmanian devils still need our help (Source: Flickr)

So what does that have to do with invisibility cloaks?

Well, part of what gave DFTD its infamous 100% death rate was that the disease is completely invisible to the devils’ immune system.

This is because of a molecule called major histocompatibility complex class I, or MHC-I. In normal cancers, MHC-I is expressed on the surface, allowing the immune system to identify it as a foreign cell. But in facial tumour disease, MHC-I is turned down, making it invisible.

In the six devils studied, MHC-I was seen to have been turned up again, revealing the presence of the cancer to the immune system.

Miraculously, four of the six devils showed regression of the cancer, making them the first known wild devil survivors of DFTD.

This suggests the wild devils may be able to detect and fight the contagious cancer that has been ravaging the wild population, which is now less than 20% what it was a decade ago.

That’s great! The Tassie devils are saved!

Well… Not quite. Or at least not yet.

Remember, only six out of 52 devils possessed the antibodies, and of these, there were only three ultimate survivors – one of the devils who had showed regression later succumbed to a reoccurrence of the cancer.

Even if the antibodies prove to be hereditary – which is as yet unknown -, that’s a pretty small number of animals to be mounting a state-wide repopulation, let alone the vague discussions of returning the devils to the mainland.

Luckily, that isn’t the end of this story.

The researchers who studied the death-defying devils have been able to use the identification of these antibodies to create an immunotherapy treatment that has been seeing success in saving the lives of other infected devils, who do not naturally possess these cancer-detecting capabilities.

Testing of the immunotherapy is still only in early trials, and more research needs to be done before a vaccine can be completed.

“This is an important step along the way to developing a vaccine to protect against DFTD and potentially for immunotherapy to cure devils of established DFTD,” says Professor Gregory Woods, head of the DFTD research team, to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal.

Is there anything I can do to help?


The research is funded in part by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal and the Australian Research Council. Professor Woods has said that the support of these institutions are imperative to continuing research.

The study was undertaken by the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania and aided by the University of Southampton and the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

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