University of Tasmania researchers earlier last year developed a pre-diagnostic test similar to a Prostate Specific Antigen test for human prostate cancer but this has not yet been scientifically validated. A diagnostic test builds on the earlier work and will be more conclusive. Scientist Greg Woods from the Hobart-based Menzies Research Institute said the identification of the nerve-protection called Schwann cells as the likely origin of DFTD was a significant step. “We are now much more confident in understanding what the tumour cell is and this will help in the development of treatments and strategies to combat this disease,” he told The Australian.
The researchers say a protein called periaxin normally found only in Schwann cells is also present in devil facial tumor cells and might be a good diagnostic marker for the disease. They still don’t know how the cancerous Schwann cells became contagious in the first place. Katherine Belov, a geneticist at the University of Sydney, believes it may simply be a “freak of nature” that allowed the cancer to be stable and transmitted.
Whatever it was, its effects have been catastrophic. In May 2009, the Australian Government raised the Tasmanian devil from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered” under national environmental law. Tasmania’s Threatened Species Act 1995 has also listed the devil as “Endangered” since May 2008. By end 2008, the disease had been confirmed at 64 locations, covering 60 percent of Tasmania. The Tasmanian government has launched a Save the Tasmanian Devil Program aimed at maintaining genetic diversity, maintaining healthy populations in the wild and managing the ecological impacts of reduced populations.
It is usually uncommon for wildlife diseases to lead directly to population extinction in the absence of other severe threats. But there had not been any evidence of a single recovery from the disease. There are fears niches left vacant by the large carnivorous marsupial will be taken up by introduced species such as feral cats and foxes. If this occurs there could be a wider impact on Tasmania’s wildlife. The new scientific findings represent the best hope to save the devil. It may take ten years to produce a vaccine against the disease but that will probably be enough time to save the animal from extinction and avoid tipping the island into a major ecological collapse.