Aug 19, 2010

Devil Tumors

To start, Robert tries to touch--literally touch--the tumor that killed President Ulysses S. Grant. But will its keepers (Dr. Adrianne Noe and Brian Spatola) let him?

Next, writer David Quammen explains an unsettling discovery in Tasmania. When wildlife photographer Christo Baars noticed strange lumps on the Tasmanian Devils he was photographing, scientists jumped in to figure out what was going on. Dr. Anne-Marie Pearse found a shocking answer--the lumps were infectious tumors, and they were leaping between Devils.

How could this happen? Jad and Robert talk to cancer biologist Carlo Maley about the improbable sequence of events that allowed the tumors to take flight.

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Many voices: You're listening to Radiolab from WNYC and NPR.

Robert: Hey.

Adrianne: Hi.

Robert: How are you?

Adrianne: I'm fine. How are you, Robert?

Robert: Nice to speak to you after all these years.

Adrianne: Yes, it's been quite a few years.

Robert: I should let you know that Jad Abumrad has just wandered in.

Jad: Hello.

Adrianne: Hi.

Robert: Jad, this is Adrianne Noe.

Adrianne: Last name is N-O-E and I'm Director of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Robert: You know why we're calling you, right?

Adrianne: Yes.

Robert: Okay, let's spring it on the audience.

Jad: [laughs]

Robert: I don't remember how I happened to bump into you. I don't even know how this came up.

Adrianne: I think you and I had been co-presenters at a Ted Conference.

Robert: Well, maybe that's what it was.

Adrianne: Probably a decade ago. We may have been talking about important events in New York or civic architecture, but I do remember perking up at the phrase 'Grant's tomb'.

Jad: Robert said something to you about Grant's tomb?

Robert: Yes.

Robert: Then, you turned to me and-- Say it again.

Adrianne: You may know who's buried in Grant's tomb, but I know what's buried in Grant's tumor.

Jad: Tumor?

[laughter]

Adrianne: Yes.

Robert: You see it turns out that at the museum she works at, there is-

Adrianne: -a tumor that had been excised from the throat of President Grant in the 1880s.

Jad: Actual tissue from Grant's tumor?

Adrianne: Yes, that's right.

[music]

Jad: Oops. Yes, here we are.

Robert: We're outside the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Hey, wait for me.

Adrianne: It is kept behind several locked doors.

Brian: You guys don't have an inkling of what you're about to see if we go in there?

Jad: No.

Brian: It's a privileged area.

Jad: This is Brian Spatola. He's the Collections Manager, and he led us down a long hallway.

Robert: Through some doors into a back room. Oh, weird.

Jad: Holly molly. Oh my God. There are twin babies in formaldehyde.

Brian: Look, brains, heads-

Jad: Oh my God.

Robert: Whoa.

Brian: -torsos and majority [crosstalk]

Robert: You haven't even gotten to the tumors.

Brian: Right.

Jad: He led us out of that room and into another one.

Robert: They're sitting on a table and waiting for us.

Jad: Is this the thing about which we spoke?

Brian: It is.

Jad: It was President Ulysses Simpson Grant's tumor.

Robert: Oh, wow. It was resting in a box that looked, as it happens, exactly like a--

Adrianne: Cigar box.

Jad: Oh, which is a little ironic.

Robert: This was the guy who never, ever stopped having a cigar in his mouth.

Adrianne: He never stopped having cigars. He smoked as many as 12 cigars a day. [laughs]

Jad: Wow.

Robert: It's probably the cigars that made the tumor.

Adrianne: February of 1885, tissue was removed, examined, and his physicians concluded that he had a squamous cell carcinoma. Ultimately, he was treated for pain and died in July of 1885 that same year.

Jad: Oh wow, it's pretty fast.

Adrianne: Yes.

Robert: That's what killed President Grant, then.

Adrianne: It was a tumor, yes.

Robert: I didn't know that.

Brian: You see the staining that they use to bring out the details on the cells?

Jad: Yes.

Robert: Is the darkness the tumor?

Brian: The darkness is the tumor.

Robert: Wow. The very stuff that even though President Grant got through Vicksburg, and then when he came East and they fought, they tried to kill him here, they tried to kill him there, then he goes and becomes the president, this is what actually killed him.

Adrianne: This is what killed him.

Jad: Wow.

Robert: Can I touch it?

Brian: No.

[laughter]

Robert: We may not be able to touch the actual tumor of the president of the United States, but we can touch on this subject.

Jad: [laughs]

Robert: We can grasp this subject, we can examine this subject. Coming up on Radiolab for the next hour it's totally tumored.

Jad: Oh, come on. Don't call it that because, really, what we're going to talk about are not just any tumors, but famous tumors.

Robert: Immortal tumors.

Jad: Devil tumors.

Robert: Contagious tumors.

Jad: Tumors that speak in the voice of God.

Robert: I'm Robert Krulwich. Not to be confused.

[laughter]

Robert: The big one.

Jad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert: This is Radiolab.

Jad: Stay with us.

[music]

Jad: To get things rolling, this first story is about something that we thought was not possible, that we hoped was not possible.

Robert: We learned it from-

David: No problem. I'll make it work.

Jad: Through this guy.

David: -David Quammen. I am a science journalist.

Robert: He is, I think, my favorite-- In my generation, I think he is the best writer that writes about science.

David: I specialize in evolutionary biology and travel on assignment to faraway places in interesting situations.

Robert: First of all, where are you going to take us? To what part of the world?

David: I'm going to take you to Tasmania.

[music]

David: Which is the island state off the South Coast of Australia. You go to Australia and you think of rock and deserts and red dirt and heat. You keep going South all the way off the South Coast, suddenly, you have these rolling green countrysides, lots of wallabies, one of the species of kangaroo that [crosstalk].

Robert: [crosstalk] England countryside with wallabies?

David: Exactly. With small kangaroos hopping around.

[laughter]

Robert: Our story does not actually begin in Tasmania.

Jad: No, it starts in Holland.

Robert: With a gentleman by the name of-

Christo: -Christo Baars.

Jad: Is that Baar, as in B-A-A-R?

Christo: Baars, with an S.

Jad: Oh.

David: Christo Baars is a wonderfully independent-spirited plumber.

Jad: A plumber?

Christo: Yes. Plumbing, I do to make a living, and photographing is, for me, a big hobby.

Robert: We don't know just how great a plumber he is, but he's a very good wildlife photographer. He looks for interesting animals to shoot, with a camera I mean. Over the years, very often, he puts down his wrench and he travels.

Christo: We don't have that many animals here in Holland. A little bit of roe deer and sometimes a fox.

[laughter]

Robert: In the early '90s--

David: -he goes to take his latest photography sabbatical in Tasmania.

Christo: I went to Tasmania on my boat.

Jad: Were you there to take pictures of wallabies or kangaroos?

Christo: No.

David: He was there this time to photograph-

Christo: -devils.

David: Tasmanian devils?

Christo: Yes. I quite like the animals.

Jad: I know the cartoon, what does a real Tasmanian devil actually look like?

Christo: They're about as big as a little pitbull.

David: Look a little bit more like a bear cub. White yolk on its chest, big set of formidable teeth. They'll eat almost anything.

Christo: Anything they can find, platypus,-

David: -kelp maggots and-

Christo: -fish.

David: Snakes.

Christo: Garbage cans.

David: The occasional rubber boot.

[laughter]

Christo: You name it.

Robert: Anyway, when Christo gets to Tasmania, he drives up the coast, he finds dead animals on the road, roadkill-

Christo: Roadkill from the road.

Robert: -to use as bait.

Jad: What sort of roadkill?

Christo: Kangaroos.

Jad: A little devil can eat a kangaroo?

Christo: Oh, yes. When there are three, four, or five together, they eat a big kangaroo. In an hour, it's gone.

Jad: Wow.

Robert: He takes the dead kangaroo, drags it to a clearing in the forest, sets up his photography equipment very close, and then what happens?

Christo: You just wait.

[music]

Robert: He waits. As the night falls, little black shapes begin to creep out of the woods.

Christo: You can hear them sniffing and they'll find the roadkill, and then they just start eating and fighting with each other. [laughs] It's quite scary if you don't have what they're eating.

Robert: As they eat, Christo, standing at a safe distance in the shadows, takes their pictures. Over the years, he's done this over, and over, and over, and he always sees lots of devils.

Jad: Devils in front of his lenses.

Christo: Sometimes 20 devils running around.

David: Devils in his kitchen.

Christo: They'll come to your tent crosstalk]

David: Devils everywhere.

Robert: After a bunch of trips, something happened. It was Easter 1996. He was in the park watching a dead kangaroo and waiting for the devils to show.

Christo: The only thing I saw was one devil.

Jad: Just one?

Christo: Yes. I'll try another spot and another spot, tried it there, two devils.

David: They're not gone entirely, but they're scarce. He notices something strange about one or two of the devils. It was something on the faces.

Christo: The face and on the back and on the mouth.

David: Something that looked like a growth. A large, ugly growth.

Christo: I thought, "Maybe they've been bitten or fighting with each other, it's a bit swollen up." It was really big and blood coming out.

David: This was the first alarm bell.

Jad: Christo, you were the first to see it?

Christo: Yes.

Robert: This was just the beginning.

Speaker 4: Like a plague out of hell, a dark death is sweeping Tasmania.

Robert: Television reporters got the story and began reporting that more and more Tasmanian Devils had these lumps on their faces.

David: They fill the eye sockets, they puff out the lips, they infect the gums. It's really sad and hideous.

Robert: Whatever they were, they turned out to be lethal.

David: To jump ahead a little bit, the effect that it's had on the population--

Robert: In some cases, devil population collapsed by 90%.

David: -died off.

Robert: Very quickly, scientists looked at the disease and determined that it was some kind of tumor, cancer-

David: -a cancerous tumor.

Robert: Then the question was, what's causing them?

Jad: What did they think?

David: Well, a toxic chemical was guess number one.

Robert: Some poison or pesticide from the environment.

David: Guess number two was a virus.

Robert: They tested in places where the devils lived looking for something toxic or some virus and they found nothing.

David: Then along comes a woman named Anne-Marie Pearse. She looked at some tumors very close up from 11 different devils.

Robert: She's looking at the first tumor-

David: -and she found that the chromosomes were mangled.

Jad: Which isn't really that strange because that's what cancer is. It's like your genetic stuff gone screwy.

David: Right.

Robert: Then she looked at the tumor from the next devil.

David: She found not just also mangled chromosomes, but chromosomes that were mangled in exactly the same way as they had been in the first devils.

Robert: Now she looks at a third.

David: Identical.

Robert: Then a fourth.

David: Identical.

Robert: Then a fifth.

David: Identical.

Robert: All 11?

David: Exactly the same pattern in each.

Robert: [sings]

Jad: [laughs] I feel the sensation of awe but I don't quite have these understanding attached. Does that mean that these tumors are all brothers?

David: What that meant was that these tumors were all genetically identical.

Jad: What?

David: They were all the same tumor.

Jad: How can they all be the same tumor?

Robert: Well, they can because that would mean that these Tasmanian devils caught the cancer from other Tasmanian devils.

David: Exactly.

Jad: Wait, what do you mean exactly? You can't catch cancer.

David: This epidemic of cancer in Tasmanian devils was a crazy impossible tumor that was jumping.

[music]

David: It was leaping from one devil to another.

[music]

Jad: A leaping tumor?

David: Yes, a leaping tumor.

[music]

Jad: This is the point in this tale where we really have to question everything that we thought we knew about cancer. Now, most people think of cancer as a-

David: -a situation in which one of your cells starts replicating and doesn't stop. It replicates uncontrollably until it destroys you.

Jad: That's the one cell theory which is frankly, how I thought cancer worked.

Carlo: Peter, we have to go ahead to start.

Jad: Then we spoke with this fellow. His name is Carlo Maley.

Carlo: A cancer biologist with the Wistar Institute.

Jad: He told us if you really want to understand what's happening with the devils, you got to toss out the one cell theory because cancer is not just-

Carlo: -it's not just the cell going haywire.

Jad: No, it's actually many cells competing-

Carlo: -competing for space, competing for resources.

Jad: In the process, driving each other haywire. "If you were to somehow go into a tumor," he says what you would find-

Carlo: -is between a billion and a trillion cells in there.

Jad: These are different cells, this huge clump of cells. They're all fighting it out because space is tight, food is scarce. What'll happen is in the middle of this melee, as the cells are competing, each individual cell is trying to copy itself. Copy, copy, copy. Somewhere along the way, you get, eventually, a copying error. "Every so often," says Carlo, "One of these mistakes will give the new cell a new talent." In the case of cancer, it usually starts with something pretty simple like the ability to slurp up food faster.

Carlo: Nutrients like oxygen and glucose.

Jad: Now, with this advantage-

Carlo: -that mutant and all of its progeny will take over that area of the tissue.

Jad: Not for long because now you got all these mutants and they start to copy until randomly again you get another copying mistake. Maybe this second copying mistake gives the cell the ability to divide faster. There it is-

Carlo: -proliferating faster than its neighbors-

Jad: It takes over.

Carlo: -growing and displacing the other cells.

Jad: It just keeps getting worse because now you've got these double mutants. They can eat fast, they can divide quickly, and they start to fight until you get a third mutation, then a fourth.

Carlo: They just keep ratcheting it up. Eventually, roughly 5 to 20 mutations.

Jad: You end up with a cell that is so gnarled, so mutated, and so powerful that it can literally spit a kind of acid-

Carlo: -called a matrix metalloproteinase that allows it to rip through the membrane barriers.

Jad: This is when you're really in trouble because now the cell can roam.

Carlo: The cells leave the primary tumor, they've got dissolved their way into a blood vessel.

Jad: That's a mutation.

Carlo: Then they've got to survive in the blood.

Jad: Another mutation.

Carlo: Then they've got to stick somewhere else.

Jad: Yet another.

Carlo: Then they've got to dissolve back to the arterial lining.

Jad: Another. It sounds like cancer is always evolving to be more cancerous.

Carlo: It totally is. This also explains why we haven't been able to cure it.

Jad: Why when a person takes chemotherapy drugs, the cancer will go away for a while, but then it'll come back stronger because the cells have evolved a resistance to those drugs.

Carlo: When I first got to work in cancer, I was impressed at how malevolent the disease seems as if it's being designed to kill us.

Jad: Here's my question, this leaping tumor in the devils, is this the case where the tumor is actually evolving into a new form like after the 50th mutation or whatever? Now it just doesn't have the ability to travel in a body, but it can somehow leap out of a body through the air and into another body.

Carlo: Sure.

Jad: That's really scary.

Carlo: Yes, it is pretty scary, but this is amazingly rare.

Jad: According to Carlo, demand some pretty special circumstances.

Robert: How would, in a Tasmanian devil, would some tumor get from one individual to another? How would that happen?

Carlo: Tasmanian devils, God bless them, bite one another in the face a lot. They're scrambling over carcasses, they're fighting, and biting, and swallowing, and crunching. The males also bite females during the mating period. He's a little bit of a rough lover. You have the male and the female biting each other in the face.

Jad: A devil with a tumor on its face, let's say it's mating with another devil, and it bites that second devil in the face, what exactly happens at that point? Is it just rubbing its tumor against--

Carlo: When you think of these big ugly tumors, think of feta cheese. When one devil bites another, there's a tendency for the tumor to crumble and to shed tumor cells that then fall into the wounds on the second devil.

Robert: There's something here I don't understand. Why wouldn't the immune system of the devils-

Carlo: -kill those cells, prevent those cells from taking root?

Jad: Yes, because that's what immune systems do.

Carlo: The lastest answer is that well, Tasmanian devils don't have as much genetic diversity as you would expect.

Robert: What that means as David explained to us is that the Tasmanian devil population has gotten so inbred, they're so alike at a genetic level that their immune systems are now confused. They don't know the difference between their own cells and invading cells coming in from other devils.

David: Exactly.

Jad: Which doesn't actually sound like a tumor is all that powerful. I asked Carlo Maley, "Is this really the story of a tumor evolving, or is it just the story of a tumor getting lucky?"

David: I think those are the same story.

Jad: How do you mean?

David: Evolution is all about damn luck.

Jad: The way he explained it, it's damn luck that the tumor was on the outside of the face. It's damn luck that they bit each other a lot, that a cell could come along that could shed and fall into a wound. It's all damn luck. that he says is what makes evolution happen.

David: That's natural selection right there.

Robert: When you step back sometimes the results are just-

Jad: -nuts. Just nuts.

David: Yes. This is the point where we need to talk about a transmissible tumor in dogs. Canine transmissible venereal tumor.

Jad: This a tumor he says that's evolved way beyond the one in the devils and way longer.

David: How long has that been going on?

Carlo: Well, it's been going on for somewhere between 200 and 2,500 years.

David: Wow.

Jad: Wow. Between 200 and 2,500 years?

David: Yes.

Jad: Over two millennia?

David: Exactly. If that's the case, then it's the oldest continuous animal cell line in existence on planet earth.

Jad: You might need to say that again.

[laughter]

Jad: That is just too strange.

David: It is.

Jad: "Even stranger," says David Quammen, "When a tumor lives this long, propagates itself for this long, you can only really call it one thing."

David: This tumor is essentially an animal. A parasite. Not a species of parasite, but one individual parasite-

Jad: -that may never die.

Robert: David Quammen is the author of Song of the Dodo and Natural Acts.

Annie: Hi, my name is Annie McEwen, I'm a producer at Radiolab. I wanted to talk about this thing we do at Radiolab because I like it. We have this thing, it's a newsletter. Big surprise, every show has a newsletter, but ours, I think, is pretty fun.

Matt: Oh, it's so fun.

Annie: Matt Kielty.

Matt: Hello.

Annie: Fellow producer at Radiolab. What is your favorite part of the newsletter?

Matt: My favorite part of the newsletter is-- first, it's getting it and seeing it in my inbox, and then second, it's opening it. Then third, is just hitting PgDn on my keyboard till I get to the very bottom of the e-mail-

Annie: Ooh, that's good.

Matt: -because you know what's at the bottom of the e-mail?

Annie: What?

Matt: You know.

Annie: Staff Picks.

Matt: Staff Picks at the bottom of the e-mail.

Annie: Yes.

Matt: How great is that?

Annie: It's great.

Matt: It's just stuff that we like, stuff that we're into.

Annie: What are your favorites?

Matt: Some of my favorite staff picks-- There was the one video where it was 17 babies on a hamster wheel.

Annie: Really?

Matt: Oh, the article about the guy who ate 17 burritos.

Annie: Matt, you're not saying real ones.

Matt: Okay, what's your favorite staff pick?

Annie: My favorite one ever?

Matt: Yes.

Annie: Well, it's hard to say. One of my favorite ones ever was Robert talking in delightful detail about The Great Sausage Duel of 1865.

Matt: Classic pick.

Annie: Classic. Molly's bedbug pajamas.

Matt: Oh, yes. That was a scary time.

Annie: Tracie's pasta recipe which I did not make because I don't really cook, but I'm just proud of her.

Matt: Actually, it's really simple.

Tracie: Urgh. It was just online. It's a 28 ounce can of tomatoes, five tablespoons of butter, a pinch of salt, an onion, and you cook it in a pan for 45 minutes, all right?

[applause]

Matt: Thank you, Tracie. I'm telling you, everybody's loving this pasta dish.

Reviewer 1: Oh, I do definitely.

Matt: That woman. This guy.

Reviewer 2: Sure.

Reviewer 3: Oh, I think it's wonderful.

Reviewer 4: Very tasty. Pasta every day.

Annie: Matt.

Matt: [laughs]

Annie: You're Matt, you're not helping. Anyway, our newsletter has cool stuff in it like staff picks. It also tells you when an episode is dropping.

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