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Tasmanian Devil's facial cancer decoded

The fatal cancer, which is clonally derived and transmitted between the devils by biting, has led to the decline of about 60 percent in their population since the disease was first reported in 1996

New York, January 1 -- The Tasmanian devils, inhabitants of the Australian island of Tasmanian, are on the verge of extinction. But the scientists in Australia claim that they have found the source of facial cancer that has endangered the world’s largest surviving marsupial carnivore.

Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) is a form of cancer that is noticed in and around the mouth as small lesions or lumps. Eventually they develop into large tumors around the face and neck and sometimes even in other parts of the body. It prevents the devils from eating, leading to death by starvation.

The fatal cancer, which is clonally derived and transmitted between the devils by biting, has led to the decline of about 60 percent in their population since the disease was first reported in 1996.

As a result the devils were listed as vulnerable under the Tasmanian Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 and the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in 2006.

Schwann cells--origin of DFTD
Now a team of researchers state that they have decoded the deadly cancer. Presenting their finding in Science, the researchers believe that the devil's Schwann cells, tissues that protect the nerve fibers, are the likely origin of the cancer.

Further, the researchers have also "identified suite of genes relevant to the cancer pathology and transmission". This will help the doctors distinguish facial cancer from other cancers, thus leading to genetic pathway to treat the disease.

The devils are prone to a number of cancers like breast cancer, leukaemia etc, and it has been very difficult for the doctors to differentiate between facial and other cancers. Now that the origin of facial cancer has been indentified, the genes can be used as diagnostic markers.

The researchers made this discovery by comparing the genes active in both healthy and sick Tasmanian devils.

Elizabeth Murchison, of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Australian National University, who led the research, was quoted by BusinessWeek as saying, “Our findings represent a big step forward in the race to save the devils from extinction."

Cultural references to Tasmanian devils
The Tasmanian devils, the iconic animal in Australia, have been popular among both domestic and international tourists.

Their unique personality has made them the subject of a number of documentaries and children books.

The dog-sized marsupial is also featured as ‘Taz’ in the cartoon series Looney Tunes by Warner Bros.

The Tasmanian devil is the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service. Also, the former Tasmanian Australian rules football team, which played in the Victorian Football League, was known as the Devils.