Day 161: Elizabeth Murchison- a contagious cancer

Something frightening is threatening the existence of the Tasmanian devil, as Elizabeth Murchison tells us here. An epidemic of facial cancer has shown that not only can cancer be contagious, but it can threaten an entire species.
The Tasmanian devil is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, found only on the island of Tasmania. Their name comes from the shrill nocturnal screams they make. In 1996 a wildlife photographer took a picture of a devil with a tumour on its face, thought to be a once off. It’s now thought this was the first documented sighting of the cancer epidemic. The disease spread across Tasmania, leaving only a small portion in the East untouched.
The disease first appears as a tumour on the face or in the mouth of the Tasmanian devil, quickly progressing to becoming ulcerated. Evidence based on cervical cancer and AIDS pointed to the cancer being spread by a virus. But Murchison, with others, proved this theory wrong.
Normally cancer doesn’t spread outside the body. This usually means that with the death of the carrier, the cancer dies also. However in the case of hundreds of Tasmanian devils studied, the cancer on their faces all shared the same DNA, thought to have broken free of the first sufferer’s body. This is most likely spread more quickly by the practice Tasmanian devils have of biting each other when they meet in the wild.
A study in the 1950s; where people were injected with certain forms of cancer and very few went on to develop it; tells us that its probably extremely rare for cancers to be transferred between people, however in the circumstances it can happen. This is something epidemiologists and oncologists should be aware of in future. Murchison’s personal aim is to prevent the Tasmanian devil from being the first animal to go extinct from cancer.


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