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Contagious cancers may not be as rare as thought, say scientists who have discovered a second transmissible cancer type in Tasmanian devils -a small dog-sized ferocious carnivore found in Tasmania.[/caption]
Contagious cancers may not be as rare as thought, say scientists who have discovered a second transmissible cancer type in Tasmanian devils -a small dog-sized ferocious carnivore found in Tasmania.
Transmissible cancers -cancers which can spread between individuals by the transfer of living cancer cells -causes facial tumours in Tasmanian devils, and is threatening this species with extinction. The discovery calls into question our current understanding of the processes that drive cancers to become transmissible.
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Tasmanian devils are iconic marsupial carnivores and have a reputation for ferocity as they frequently bite each other during mating and feeding interactions.
In 1996, researchers observed Tasmanian devils in the north-east of the island with tumours affecting the face and mouth; soon it was discovered that these tumours were contagious between devils, spread by biting.
The cancer spreads rapidly throughout the animal's body and the disease usually causes the death of affected animals within months of the appearance of symptoms.
To date, only two other forms of transmissible cancer have been observed in nature -in dogs and in softshell clams. "Until now, we've always thought that transmissible cancers arise extremely rarely in nature, but this new discovery makes us question this belief," said senior author Elizabeth Murchison.