A potential "magic bullet" may have been found in the fight to treat a deadly disease that has ravaged Tasmanian devils for the last two decades.
The illness, Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease, is a cancer spread from devil to devil by biting, when the animals are interacting socially. It was first spotted in 1996.
Second Form Of Contagious Cancer Found In Tasmanian Devils
Researchers from Deakin University compared the immune system molecules of devils that had the cancer with those that did not.
"We know from human and animal studies that certain natural antibodies are able to recognize and kill cancerous cells," explained research co-author Beata Ujvari in a statement. "So we wanted to see whether the presence of these molecules would also determine tumor development in Tasmanian devils."
VIDEO: How The Endangered Species Act Looks Out For Animals
The scientists observed that devils with a higher ratio of the natural antibodies were less likely to have the deadly disease.
"We can deduce, then, that devils with higher natural antibody ratio are therefore less susceptible to the contagious cancer," Ujvari said.
The hope springing from Ujvari's research is that new anti-tumor vaccines could be created that enhance production of the natural antibodies, or that the antibodies could be used in direct treatment of the disease.
"This process, known as ‘active immunotherapy,' is becoming more and more accepted in treating human cancers," Ujvari said, "and we think it could be the magic bullet in saving the Tasmanian devils from extinction."
Should Tasmanian Devils Be Returned To Mainland Australia?
Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease creates large, ulcerating tumors in the devils and has been responsible for an enormous decline of the species since it was first detected 20 years ago. The marsupials, which today exist only on Australia's island-state Tasmania, are classified as endangered, and Australian environmental law has protected the animals since 2009.
Ujvari and her colleagues from the universities of Sydney and Tasmania report their findings on the prevalence of the antibodies in the latest issue of the journal Nature Scientific Reports.