Thursday, Dec. 09, 2010

Contagious Cancer Culprit Found in Tasmanian Devils

They're typically characterized by the raucous, destructive Warner Brothers cartoon, but in reality Tasmanian devils are the ones at risk — from a disfiguring, contagious disease known as the devil facial tumor disease. Scientists and wildlife conservationists have predicted that the entire species could be wiped out within 50 years if a cure isn't found, as the species has lost nearly 70 percent of its population to the disease. But early in 2010, a hopeful discovery made headlines around the world, as scientists finally identified a cause for the disease. Where scientists once thought a virus was behind the illness, they found instead that a contagious cancer was behind the tumors — a cancer that originates in nerve-insulating cells called Schwann cells. It is these cancerous cells that are transmitted from devil to devil. And while scientists are still at a loss over how the cancer became transferable, this year's discovery has given them reason to hope that a cure could be developed before the little devils are wiped out completely.