Have Tasmanian Devils Found the Cure for Cancer?

They're rapidly evolving to fend off a particularly deadly form of the disease
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 30, 2016 6:13 PM CDT

(Newser) – Scientists may not have figured out a cure for cancer, but the Tasmanian devil just might have. According to a study published Tuesday in Nature Communications, the marsupial is quickly evolving to fend off devil facial tumor disease, one of only three known infectious cancers. The disease was only discovered in 1996, but it's nearly 100% fatal and has killed off 80% of wild Tasmanian devils since then, the BBC reports. According to the Guardian, it's spread to 95% of Tasmania, the only home of the Tasmanian devil. But despite scientific models predicting the extinction of the species, it's still here. Researchers decided to find out why.

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Looking at 10,000 tissue samples taken from Tasmanian devils between 1999 and 2014, researchers found seven different genes in two parts of the genome that appear to be related to cancer and are changing unusually fast. In some places, the genes have evolved in just six generations, what study author Dr. Andrew Storfer tells the BBC is a "very short period of evolutionary time." Not only could these genes one day help fight cancer in humans, but they give hope for the dwindling Tasmanian devil population. "I think that's the only thing that can save the devils—that it'll save itself," researcher Menna Jones tells ABC. (An infectious cancer is also bedeviling East Coast clams.)

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