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Researchers Identify another Contagious Cancer in the Tasmanian Devil

Update Date: Dec 31, 2015 11:23 AM EST
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Scientists are reporting that they have found another type of contagious cancer, a condition that is considered to be very rare in animals.

The team, which included researchers from the University of Tasmania in Australia, and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, identified a third form of cancer that is transmissible in the Tasmanian devil, a dog-like marsupial that can only be found in Australia.

This is the second form of contagious cancer found in this species. The first type, which was discovered in 1996, is called Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). The researchers noted that although the second form that they found is very similar to DFTD, the genetic makeup is different.

"Until now, we've always thought that transmissible cancers arise extremely rarely in nature. But this new discovery makes us question this belief," the study's senior author, Dr. Elizabeth Murchison, who is from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, said in a news release. "Now that we have discovered that this has happened a second time, it makes us wonder if Tasmanian devils might be particularly vulnerable to developing this type of disease, or that transmissible cancers may not be as rare in nature as we previously thought."

These contagious cancers, which typically show up on the face, can be spread between Tasmanian devils via a bite. When DFTD was first discovered in the animals, the researchers found that the cancer was killing the animals very quickly. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed the Tasmanian devil as endangered.

"It's possible that in the Tasmanian wilderness there are more transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils that have not yet been discovered," Gregory Woods from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania, said. "The potential for new transmissible cancers toe merge in this species has important implications for Tasmanian devil conservation programs."

Contagious cancer has also been found in dogs and soft-shell clams.

The study's findings were published in the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

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