'Magic Bullet' Therapy Could Fight Tasmanian Devil Cancer

Natural antibodies already present in the animals could hold the key to their survival.

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."

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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.

Recently an urgent message went out to animal lovers: An animal rescue organization in Australia needed as many cotton mittens as people could make or donate. Recent bushfires in the country were harming slow-moving koalas, burning their paws, and animals being cared for after the fires needed all the spare dressings they could get. In honor of the ordeal faced by these lovable, takin'-it-easy creatures, we thought a gallery of their sheer adorableness was in order.

Call Goes Out for Mittens for Koalas with Burned Paws

These cute Australians eat the leaves of the eucalyptus tree -- almost exclusively.

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The leaves aren't terribly energizing, so koalas can sleep for about 20 hours per day.

Koalas Change Trees From Day to Night

Koala moms give birth to a single youngster, after a roughly month-long gestation period. The youngins need about 9 months to grow into their adult fur color and remain clingy during this time.

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Sometimes baby koalas need a helping hand from those strange bipeds that seem to adore them.

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Koalas have sharp claws that make them good climbers. The better to be able to hug trees and hang out in them sleeping and eating.

They motor around on all fours when on the ground.

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A koala's belly fur can reflect solar radiation.

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Its thick back fur, meanwhile, has excellent insulating properties, helping the creature in windy or rainy conditions. (Koalas in the northern region, however, have shorter fur.) The color and pattern of the coat will vary between individuals and will change with age.

By about 9 months old, young koalas have permanently left mom's pouch but still need to get around by clinging to her back. By about 12 months, though, they'll be fully weaned.

PHOTOS: Animals Hug Trees to Stay Cool