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Concept: Devil facial tumour disease


Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is a fatal contagious cancer that has decimated Tasmanian devil populations. The tumour has spread without invoking immune responses, possibly due to low levels of Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) diversity in Tasmanian devils. Animals from a region in north-western Tasmania have lower infection rates than those in the east of the state. This area is a genetic transition zone between sub-populations, with individuals from north-western Tasmania displaying greater diversity than eastern devils at MHC genes, primarily through MHC class I gene copy number variation. Here we test the hypothesis that animals that remain healthy and tumour free show predictable differences at MHC loci compared to animals that develop the disease.

Concepts: Immune system, Gene, Genetics, Major histocompatibility complex, MHC class I, Tasmania, Devil facial tumour disease, Tasmanian Devil


Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) risk extinction from a contagious cancer, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) in which the infectious agent is the tumor cell itself. Because devils are unable to produce an immune response against the tumor cells no devil has survived ‘infection’. To promote an immune response we immunized healthy devils with killed DFTD tumor cells in the presence of adjuvants. Immune responses, including cytotoxicity and antibody production, were detected in five of the six devils. The incorporation of adjuvants that act via toll like receptors may provide additional signals to break ‘immunological ignorance’. One of these devils was protected against a challenge with viable DFTD cells. This was a short-term protection as re-challenge one year later resulted in tumor growth. These results suggest that Tasmanian devils can generate immune responses against DFTD cells. With further optimization of immune stimulation it should be possible to protect Tasmanian devils against DFTD with an injectable vaccine.

Concepts: Immune system, Antibody, Cancer, Infectious disease, Vaccination, Immunology, Devil facial tumour disease, Tasmanian Devil


Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is a transmissible cancer devastating the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) population. The cancer cell is the ‘infectious’ agent transmitted as an allograft by biting. Animals usually die within a few months with no evidence of antibody or immune cell responses against the DFTD allograft. This lack of anti-tumour immunity is attributed to an absence of cell surface major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-I molecule expression. While the endangerment of the devil population precludes experimentation on large experimental groups, those examined in our study indicated that immunisation and immunotherapy with DFTD cells expressing surface MHC-I corresponded with effective anti-tumour responses. Tumour engraftment did not occur in one of the five immunised Tasmanian devils, and regression followed therapy of experimentally induced DFTD tumours in three Tasmanian devils. Regression correlated with immune cell infiltration and antibody responses against DFTD cells. These data support the concept that immunisation of devils with DFTD cancer cells can successfully induce humoral responses against DFTD and trigger immune-mediated regression of established tumours. Our findings support the feasibility of a protective DFTD vaccine and ultimately the preservation of the species.

Concepts: Immune system, Antibody, Cancer, Oncology, Immunology, Tasmania, Devil facial tumour disease, Tasmanian Devil


Although cancer rarely acts as an infectious disease, a recently emerged transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) is virtually 100% fatal. Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) has swept across nearly the entire species' range, resulting in localized declines exceeding 90% and an overall species decline of more than 80% in less than 20 years. Despite epidemiological models that predict extinction, populations in long-diseased sites persist. Here we report rare genomic evidence of a rapid, parallel evolutionary response to strong selection imposed by a wildlife disease. We identify two genomic regions that contain genes related to immune function or cancer risk in humans that exhibit concordant signatures of selection across three populations. DFTD spreads between hosts by suppressing and evading the immune system, and our results suggest that hosts are evolving immune-modulated resistance that could aid in species persistence in the face of this devastating disease.

Concepts: Immune system, Medicine, Cancer, Infectious disease, Evolution, Organism, Infection, Devil facial tumour disease


Contagious cancers that pass between individuals as an infectious cell line are highly unusual pathogens. Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) is one such contagious cancer that emerged 16 y ago and is driving the Tasmanian devil to extinction. As both a pathogen and an allograft, DFTD cells should be rejected by the host-immune response, yet DFTD causes 100% mortality among infected devils with no apparent rejection of tumor cells. Why DFTD cells are not rejected has been a question of considerable confusion. Here, we show that DFTD cells do not express cell surface MHC molecules in vitro or in vivo, due to down-regulation of genes essential to the antigen-processing pathway, such as β2-microglobulin and transporters associated with antigen processing. Loss of gene expression is not due to structural mutations, but to regulatory changes including epigenetic deacetylation of histones. Consequently, MHC class I molecules can be restored to the surface of DFTD cells in vitro by using recombinant devil IFN-γ, which is associated with up-regulation of the MHC class II transactivator, a key transcription factor with deacetylase activity. Further, expression of MHC class I molecules by DFTD cells can occur in vivo during lymphocyte infiltration. These results explain why T cells do not target DFTD cells. We propose that MHC-positive or epigenetically modified DFTD cells may provide a vaccine to DFTD. In addition, we suggest that down-regulation of MHC molecules using regulatory mechanisms allows evolvability of transmissible cancers and could affect the evolutionary trajectory of DFTD.

Concepts: Immune system, DNA, Gene, Gene expression, Cancer, Major histocompatibility complex, MHC class I, Devil facial tumour disease


Immunoglobulins such as IgG and IgM have been shown to induce anti-tumour cytotoxic activity. In the present study we therefore explore total serum IgG and IgM expression dynamics in 23 known-aged Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) of which 9 where affected by Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). DFTD is clonally transmissible cancer that has caused massive declines in devil numbers. Our analyses revealed that IgM and IgG expression levels as well as IgM/IgG ratios decreased with increasing devil age. Neither age, sex, IgM nor IgG expression levels affected devil DFTD status in our analyses. However, devils with increased IgM relative to IgG expression levels had significantly lower DFTD prevalence. Our results therefore suggest that IgM/IgG ratios may play an important role in determining devil susceptibility to DFTD. We consequently propose that our findings warrant further studies to elucidate the underpinning(s) of devil IgM/IgG ratios and DFTD status.

Concepts: Immune system, Cancer, Immunology, Tasmania, Devil facial tumour disease, Tasmanian Devil, Dasyuridae, Sarcophilus


The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), the largest marsupial carnivore, is endangered due to a transmissible facial cancer spread by direct transfer of living cancer cells through biting. Here we describe the sequencing, assembly, and annotation of the Tasmanian devil genome and whole-genome sequences for two geographically distant subclones of the cancer. Genomic analysis suggests that the cancer first arose from a female Tasmanian devil and that the clone has subsequently genetically diverged during its spread across Tasmania. The devil cancer genome contains more than 17,000 somatic base substitution mutations and bears the imprint of a distinct mutational process. Genotyping of somatic mutations in 104 geographically and temporally distributed Tasmanian devil tumors reveals the pattern of evolution and spread of this parasitic clonal lineage, with evidence of a selective sweep in one geographical area and persistence of parallel lineages in other populations.

Concepts: DNA, Genetics, Cancer, Mutation, Tasmania, Devil facial tumour disease, Tasmanian Devil, Dasyuridae


The Tasmanian devil, the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, is at risk of extinction due to devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), a fatal contagious cancer. The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program has established an insurance population, which currently holds over 600 devils in captive facilities across Australia. Microbes are known to play a crucial role in the health and well-being of humans and other animals, and increasing evidence suggests that changes in the microbiota can influence various aspects of host physiology and development. To improve our understanding of devils and facilitate management and conservation of the species, we characterised the microbiome of wild devils and investigated differences in the composition of microbial community between captive and wild individuals.

Concepts: Archaea, Conservation biology, Species, Mammal, Marsupial, Devil facial tumour disease, Tasmanian Devil, Thylacine


The emergence of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), a highly contagious cancer, is driving Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) to extinction. The cancer is a genetically and chromosomally stable clonal cell line which is transmitted by biting during social interactions. In the present study, we explore the Devil Facial Tumour (DFT) epigenome and the genes involved in DNA methylation homeostasis. We show that tumour cells have similar levels of methylation to peripheral nerves, the tissue from which DFTD originated. We did not observe any strain or region-specific epimutations. However, we revealed a significant increase in hypomethylation in DFT samples over time (p < 0.0001). We propose that loss of methylation is not because of a maintenance deficiency, as an upregulation of DNA methyltransferase 1 gene was observed in tumours compared with nerves (p < 0.005). Instead, we believe that loss of methylation is owing to active demethylation, supported by the temporal increase in MBD2 and MBD4 (p < 0.001). The implications of these changes on disease phenotypes need to be explored. Our work shows that DFTD should not be treated as a static entity, but rather as an evolving parasite with epigenetic plasticity. Understanding the role of epimutations in the evolution of this parasitic cancer will provide unique insights into the role of epigenetic plasticity in cancer evolution and progression in traditional cancers that arise and die with their hosts.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Gene expression, Cancer, Oncology, Evolution, DNA methylation, Devil facial tumour disease


Clonally transmissible cancers are somatic cell lineages that are spread between individuals via the transfer of living cancer cells. There are only three known naturally occurring transmissible cancers, and these affect dogs, soft-shell clams, and Tasmanian devils, respectively. The Tasmanian devil transmissible facial cancer was first observed in 1996, and is threatening its host species with extinction. Until now, this disease has been consistently associated with a single aneuploid cancer cell lineage that we refer to as DFT1. Here we describe a second transmissible cancer, DFT2, in five devils located in southern Tasmania in 2014 and 2015. DFT2 causes facial tumors that are grossly indistinguishable but histologically distinct from those caused by DFT1. DFT2 bears no detectable cytogenetic similarity to DFT1 and carries a Y chromosome, which contrasts with the female origin of DFT1. DFT2 shows different alleles to both its hosts and DFT1 at microsatellite, structural variant, and major histocompatibility complex (MHC) loci, confirming that it is a second cancer that can be transmitted between devils as an allogeneic, MHC-discordant graft. These findings indicate that Tasmanian devils have spawned at least two distinct transmissible cancer lineages and suggest that transmissible cancers may arise more frequently in nature than previously considered. The discovery of DFT2 presents important challenges for the conservation of Tasmanian devils and raises the possibility that this species is particularly prone to the emergence of transmissible cancers. More generally, our findings highlight the potential for cancer cells to depart from their hosts and become dangerous transmissible pathogens.

Concepts: Immune system, Cancer, Oncology, Chromosome, Neoplasm, Aneuploidy, Devil facial tumour disease, Transmissible cancer