Return Home


Wednesday, April 27, 2016 - 11:10 AM

Back in 2010, we featured a segment on “devil tumors,” (officially known as DFTD, or devil facial tumor disease) - a really gnarly, contagious tumor that plagues Tasmanian devils. It was first discovered in 1996, when wildlife photographer Christo Baars stumbled upon this:

 What made this tumor so terrifying - aside from its grotesque appearance, bulging from eye sockets and dangling off cheeks - was its crazy contagiousness. Cancer is not a cold: it’s not supposed to be catchable … and it was assumed to be a freak of nature.

But now, a second, contagious tumor has been discovered. Ruth Pye, a graduate student at University of Tasmania, documented it in March 2014.

 “It’s just turned everything upside down,” Elizabeth Murchison, a researcher studying DFTD at University of Cambridge, told me over the phone. “For us working in the field, it’s the last thing we could have possibly imagined!”

 This new tumor, DFT2, appears totally different from the first one (relabeled DFT1). That’s important, because it’s not just a mutation. Murchison believes the two sprang up independently of each other.

 Why’s that? Well, researchers believe all DFT1 cases originated from one female devil that probably lived 20-30 years ago. They all have pretty much the same genetic markers and two inherited X chromosomes, because they all got their DNA from that first lady devil’s tumor.

 But DFT2 has totally different genetic markers and X and Y chromosomes, suggesting it probably came from a male devil in more recent years - an altogether independent lineage from our original lady devil. In fact, one article reports that analysis of their genomes suggests the two tumors are as different from each other as they are from healthy devil cells. What they do have in common is their terrifying, contagious ability to spread between devils.

 This news is bad for devils, as researchers have continued finding new cases of DFT2 (now 10!), and DFT1 has spread to almost all areas of Tasmania, wiping out large numbers. But it also has wider implications for the rest of us.

 “I mean, just a few years ago, we thought there were only two [contagious cancers] - in Tasmanian devils and dogs - and now, as of 2015, we know there are four,” Murchison reflected. In addition to DFT2, a contagious water-borne leukemia in soft-shell clams was confirmed just last year.

 These new discoveries have some researchers thinking this whole contagious cancer thing might be more common - and perhaps not as restricted to the quirks of cancer-prone, in-bred Tasmanian devils - than originally thought.

 It still seems unlikely that we’ll be worrying about contagious cancer in humans any time soon, but Elizabeth thinks that these findings and our increased awareness about these cancers mean it’s more likely we’ll continue finding them in other species.

 “We don’t really understand why certain species have got them,” Murchison concluded. “And until we do, I guess we can assume that all species could get transmissible cancers.”


For the primary article this update was based on, please see Ed Yong’s “The Curious Case of a Contagious Cancer” in The Atlantic.

For more info on strategies/solutions for DFT1 including a potential vaccine, see Julie Rehmeyer’s “Fatal Cancer Threatens Tasmanian Devil Populations” in Discover.




More in:

Comments [8]

Carol from Newcastle, WA

More bad news for the beleaguered wildlife of Australia. . . Poor devils. I hope the devil population will adapt and survive!

Aug. 16 2017 05:52 PM
GMM Cocd from Cincinnati

Human Papilloma virus has been known for several years to cause cervical cancer in humans as well as some upper airway tumors.

Apr. 12 2017 05:08 PM
AuntiJen from Buffalo

My husband was stricken with soft cell sarcoma as an infant, and his primary care giver was his grandmother. Just as he was ending chemo, she became Ill with the exact same strain and did not make it. He has always STRONGLY believed that she "caught" his cancer (since the 80s) this used to make people dismiss him as crazy. Now who's laughing.

Nov. 20 2016 02:13 PM
Li Zhi

I really don't understand why they are attempting to repackage old facts. We've known that (contagious) viruses cause cancer for decades.
I guess next they'll have a show about how pubescent hormones cause not only major "disfigurements" (various tissues enlarging or changing) but also change behavior so that these gene caused changes are transmitted (via reproduction). Horrors!

Jul. 03 2016 05:46 PM

(cervical cancer in humans and HPV)

Jun. 26 2016 07:25 PM

I'm Chris Kok, Video Productions at Marana High School. My wife had breast cancer which was already in the stage IV and the doctor said we needed a miracle for her to be cured of the cancer. But for grace over my family a miracle happened when we learnt about Cannabis Oil, she has been on the treatment for the past 3 months and the result was tremendous as the Hemp Oil has cured the Cancer. If you have any cancer problem, chronic diseases, diabetes or any related dangerous diseases, please contact Dr. Louis Pierre via:

Chris Kok

May. 09 2016 05:36 AM
alixour from USA

As if the inexplicable, giant virus podcast "Shrink" wasn't bone chilling enough! You guys keep on delivering the terror! Thank you?!

Next we'll find evidence consciousness - however we define it - is a sort of contagious light based life form making a host of us!

"It all started as a candle lit, a peculiar dream, and an acknowledgement of "I."

May. 04 2016 11:13 AM

Swimming with the giant sea turtles in Mexico and Hawaii, many many (sometimes most!) of their heads were disfigured with hideous huge white tumors, sometimes blocking their eyes, nose, or even mouth. I got the feeling that they were viral, that they didn't emanate from some pollution cause there was no chemical so toxic, and common to both places. Just what we need, viral cancer, maybe airborne- paging Ft. Dietricht or Russia's monster illegal bio-war program (6 story high anthrax generators long after that stuff was all banned- destroyed after 1989). I think it's possible even AIDs was a result of their programs (of course we know it came from bush meat monkeys), because if you develop some slow acting deadly contagious virus.... how would you test it's transmissibilityand effects? Hmmm, wild pops of human's closest relatives.

May. 01 2016 06:31 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by