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THE horror of the mysterious disease killing Tasmanian devils still shocks scientist Clare Hawkins.
Dr Hawkins has been observing devils with Devil Facial Tumour Disease since March last year.
But the British-born biologist still finds it difficult to deal with the gruesome deformities caused by DFTD.
Wearing gloves and protective clothing, Dr Hawkins has to examine the diseased animals.
DFTD begins with fairly innocuous-looking lesions in a devil's mouth.
These grow into ugly bulbous cancers, which protrude from the neck and often invade the eye sockets, nasal passages and jaw.
Devils in the late stages of the disease can be blind and seriously disturbed, often dying because they cannot fend for themselves.
The time from lesions to death is three to six months.
"The disease is incredibly constant and pretty horrible," Dr Hawkins said.
"It eats away at the bone occasionally and sometimes you'll be opening the mouth and you realise the jaw is no longer solid. That is the worst, it's a dreadful, dreadful disease."
Dr Hawkins is part of a Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment team investigating DFTD.
The team thinks the disease is a new form of cancer never seen before in devils or any other animal.
DPIWE scientists at the Mt Pleasant laboratories in Launceston are working on a theory that DFTD is transmitted mechanically cell to cell when devils bite.
Field biologists think DFTD started in a "rotten apple" devil in the state's North-East.
First reported in 1996, DFTD has spread west to Cradle Mountain and south of Hobart.
DFTD is thought to have killed tens of thousands of devils in its march across the island.
Originally posted by Thain Esh Kelch
Sounds normal to me.
Scientists Discover Origin of a Cancer in Tasmanian Devils
The Tasmanian devil, the spaniel-size marsupial found on the Australian island of Tasmania, has been hurtling toward extinction in recent years, the victim of a bizarre and mysterious facial cancer that spreads like a plague.
Now Australian scientists say they have discovered how the cancer originated. The finding, being reported Friday in the journal Science, sheds light on how cancer cells can sometimes liberate themselves from the hosts where they first emerged. On a more practical level, it also opens the door to devising vaccines that could save the Tasmanian devils.
The cancer, devil’s facial tumor disease, is transmitted when the animals bite one another’s faces during fights. It grows rapidly, choking off the animal’s mouth and spreading to other organs. The disease has wiped out 60 percent of all Tasmanian devils since it was first observed in 1996, and some ecologists predict that it could obliterate the entire wild population within 35 years.
When the tumor disease was discovered, many scientists assumed that it was caused by a rapidly spreading virus. Viruses cause 15 percent of all cancers in humans and are also widespread in animals.
But subsequent studies failed to turn up a virus....
To trace the origin of the tumors, the scientists looked at individual cancer cells, recording which genes were active. They found a set of genes normally active only in a type of nerve cell known as Schwann cells. They argue that a single Schwann cell in a single animal was the progenitor of all the devil facial tumor disease cells.
Scientists have found only one other case in which cancer cells naturally spread like parasites, a disease in dogs known as canine transmissible venereal tumor.
Infectious cancer poses a puzzle for biologists. “It is somehow a new organism,” Dr. Pappenfuss said. “I think of it as a parasite.”