March 26 - Scientists in Australia say they're hopeful that new research will lead to a vaccine for the contagious cancer which is driving the iconic Tasmanian devil to the brink of extinction. The cancer, first identified in 1996, has decimated the devil population by as much as 90% in some areas of Australia's island state. Rob Muir reports.
It's taken years of reseach but scientists believe they now know why a deadly cancer has been able to spread unchecked through the Tasmanian Devil population in Australia's island state. In the 17 years since it was first identified, the cancer has decimated the species in the wild. The disease is passed through saliva when the animals bite one another during feeding or mating and produces facial tumours that prevent the animals from eating. Most die from starvation, but according to Greg Woods of the Menzies Research Institute, there are now new clues that could lead to a solution. SOUNDBITE (English) GREG WOODS, PROFESSOR OF IMMUNOLOGY SAYING: "Well this research has found the reason why the tumour escapes the immune system. It's simply because it fails to express important immune recognition proteins so it's basically invisible to the devil's immune system." But Woods says the genes responsible for those proteins are intact. They just need to be switched on. SOUNDBITE (English) GREG WOODS, PROFESSOR OF IMMUNOLOGY SAYING: "What's exciting about this work is we discovered a way in which we can treat these tumour cells in the laboratory and turn these genes, these proteins, back on and if we use that as a base of a vaccine we should be able to induce an immune response to the tumour and we should have the basis of a vaccine." And if a vaccine can be produced, healthy animals including the insurance populations being bred outside Tasmania, can be immunised and, with luck support a resurgent population of Tasmania's unique marsupial species back in their native home