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Save the Devils
by -- February 20th, 2013

Like our namesakes, the Chausseurs Alpins, being a Blue Devil means we fight to the end. Around Duke Campus, Blue Devils have a great investment in each other. In fact, evidence suggests that the air in Cameron appears to induce some sort of crazy behavior that is treated with 99% efficacy by our long term resident, Dr. K.  Everywhere you look, Blue Devils get each other’s back.  That is how we are bred.  It is in our genes.   Unfortunately, on the island of Tasmania, one of our cousins is in grave peril.

The Tasmanian devil population has recently been ravaged by an aggressive facial tumor. The Tasmanian devils are marsupials which only live on the island off the coast of Australia.  This deadly tumor was first recognized in the 1990s, and rapidly spread across the island. The tumor has nearly obliterated the population, and the total number of Tasmanian devils has decreased eighty-four percent. The most frightening finding of this was that the tumor seemed to be contagious: researchers studying the tumor were shocked to find that the tumor was spreading, devil by devil. The clock to save the devils was ticking, but the researchers still had to solve the puzzle of how the cancer was spreading through the population like wildfire.

The answers lie both in the tumor and the devils themselves. The tumor is a rapidly mutating tumor, which is aggressive and kills the devils within six months. Like most tumors, it has differences in DNA which makes it less “visible” to the immune system and so it can seed and takeover quickly. The Tasmanian devils are uniquely susceptible to such an attack for multiple reasons. They are a genetically homogenous species, and therefore any invasive threat which evades the immune system in one devil is more suited to spread in other devils. Also, they are aggressive, and often fight and maul each other’s faces. This face biting, introduces a portal of entry, like the secret door to the Lonely Mountain discovered by Bilbo in “The Hobbit,” and enable the cells to travel from the face of one devil to another. Once inside, the tumor cells can run amok, hiding from the immune system, rapidly dividing, and take over.

Is there any hope for our Devil Brethren Down Under? Researchers remain hopeful. There are currently two parts to their plan. First, they are developing a vaccine. They hope that creating a protein target similar to the tumor will boost the immune system. Just like the proteins that teach the body to recognize and resist infections like the flu, the vaccine would alert the Devils’ immune system to danger, and teach it to find and eliminate the tumor before it can take over. But the vaccine would still need to be developed and tested, and there is no guarantee it can be developed in time.

Secondly, they are removing some healthy devils from Tasmania, in a reverse quarantine to ultimately save the species. Currently they are moving to the Island of Maria. But we wonder if there might not be a place for them in Durham. We already have the world renowned Lemur Center, with the largest population of lemurs outside of Madagascar. We do not feel it is hubris to assume our devilish cousins might feel at home in the Home of the Blue Devils: Durham Devils has a nice ring to it. Either way, we have hope we can Save the Devils.

Reference: Proc. R. Soc. B 2013 280, 20121720 first published online 7 November 2012

Thomas Madsen, Anthony T. Papenfuss and Katherine Belov, Beata Ujvari, Anne-Maree Pearse, Sarah Peck, Collette Harmsen, Robyn Taylor, Stephen Pyecroft,

Evolution of a contagious cancer: epigenetic variation in Devil Facial Tumour Disease

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