A genetic mutation leads to tumor regression in Tasmanian devils

Hyperaxion Aug 9, 2020

Scientists have found that the mutation also occurs in humans. The results open possibilities for new cancer treatments.

Since the 1990s, a rare type of cancer has threatened populations of Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii). The devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) decimated these carnivorous marsupials on the southeastern coast of Australia, and today they are found only on the island state of Tasmania.

A genetic mutation leads to tumor regression in Tasmanian devils
(Credit: David Clode / Unsplash).

DFTD is so lethal to these animals because it is transmissible: cancer cells are passed from one individual to another through bite. Tasmanian devils often attack each other, especially to compete for partners and food. The disease manifests itself through tumors on the face or inside the mouth and usually leads to death.

Given the seriousness of the problem, scientists around the world are studying possible treatments. Recently, researchers at Washington State University (WSU) and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, both in the United States, have discovered a mechanism that can be used in therapies for DFTD and possibly human cancers.

The study, published last week in the journal Genetics, shows a genetic mutation that can reduce the growth of DFTD in these marsupials. “This gene is implicated in human prostate and colon cancers,” said Andrew Storfer, a professor at WSU and one of the research leaders, in a statement.

Together with other scientists, Storfer analyzed the genome in cases where DFTD spontaneously regressed – that is, the cancer started to disappear on its own. And the mutation has been shown to be the cause of regression – in laboratory tests, the modified gene slowed tumor growth.

Although at first, it is only Tasmanian devils that will benefit from the research results, the authors believe that this could be a path for new anticancer treatments in humans. Today, the most widespread therapies focus on removing all traces of the malignant tumor, with strong side effects on patients.

“If there were ways that tumors could be tricked into regressing without having to administer cytotoxic drugs or deforming surgeries, it would be a major advance,” said David Hockenbery, a cancer biologist at Fred Hutchinson.

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