Tasmanian devils are the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial and are only found on the island of Tasmania. Over the last 20 years, the wild Tasmanian devil population has been reduced by 77% primarily due to a transmissible cancer known as the devil facial tumour (DFT1) disease. Substantial efforts to conserve this unique species have resulted in several promising outcomes in recent years including several observations of natural tumour regressions in the wild and the development of vaccines and immunotherapies that have induced DFT1 tumour regressions in controlled trials. However, wild devil populations have not recovered and in 2014 a second lethal transmissible cancer (devil facial tumour 2; DFT2) was discovered. This new disease, combined with other ongoing threats to devils, such as road fatalities and habitat loss, means their future remains uncertain. Our team at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research and the School of Medicine at the University of Tasmania, working with members of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program and USDA National Wildlife Research Center, has developed a plan to modify a highly successful oral bait vaccine strategy to vaccinate wild devils across the state and combat devil facial tumour transmission. Oral bait vaccines wrap an oral/edible vaccine in food bait that is then eaten by an animal. Once the animal chews through the bait, it bursts the vaccine packet and gets immunised. This strategy eliminates the need to trap and inject every animal with the vaccine and has been used to eliminate rabies transmission from several entire countries. This project is in its early stages, but this approach has the potential to control devil facial tumours transmission across the entire state of Tasmania to finally allow wild devil populations to rebound. To learn more about this innovative approach you can read the paper at (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14760584.2020.1711058) or go to the website of Dr Andrew Flies at https://wildimmunity.com/.
Our latest publication compared key immune checkpointmolecules in nine different species ranging from humans to mice to bats to Tasmanian devils. Despite the last common ancestor of marsupial and placental animals occurring 162,000,000 years ago, we found a remarkable level of similarity in key regions for these critical immune molecules. This suggests that some immunotherapy or vaccine approaches that work in humans might also work in Tasmanian devils!
Comparative Analysis of Immune Checkpoint Molecules and Their Potential Role in the Transmissible Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease
This is a technical and jargon-rich manuscript, but has the most interesting immunological insight of any Wild Immunity paper to date!