In 2003, the Tasmanian Government was spurred to action and created the Save The Tasmanian Devil (STTD) program to understand and then fight the disease. It was in fact found to be a parasitic cancer, an incredibly rare form of disease created by deformed chromosomes that develop into an independent organism, capable of ingesting the nutrients in other devils' bodies. STTD was found to be particularly devastating because the cancer cells were not producing “antigens”, little protein identifiers usually found on the rim of the cells, and therefore unidentifiable to the Devils' usually robust immune systems.
There are currently 3 broad avenues of research, and of hope, for tackling the tumour. The first is to develop a vaccine by recoding and activating “MHC” genes responsible for antigen creation, thus helping the Devils' immune systems to identify and destroy the cancer. A second line of research hopes to fast-track the processes of natural selection to minimise the efficacy of the cancer itself, helping to develop more resistant generations of Devils, who nevertheless would be hosts. Lastly, populations near the famous tourist destination of Cradle Mountain have been observed to have lower mortality rates, and blood samples have been taken to discover why.
Researchers and conservationists are now locked in a race with time to develop these insights before the cancer destroys the entirety of the population. In the meantime, a “reserve” population is being maintained by captive breeding programs off the coast of Tasmania, and far from the destructive path of the cancer. Approximately 600 devils are being kept for this worst-case scenario, and all things indicate that these managed populations are thriving.
Researchers are making the modest estimation that another 20 to 30 years will be required to find a solution. In that long meantime, visit www.tassiedevil.com.au/ for more information or to make a donation to assist this crucial work.