Saving Tasmanian Devils May Lead to Cancer Treatments


Cartoonist Robert McKimson pegged parts of the Tasmanian Devil’s character pretty much square on when he created Taz for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes series. Although the cartoon creature walked on two legs instead of four and acted like a snarky teenager, he shared a voracious appetite and scrappy behavior with the carnivorous Australian marsupial.

Another thing he shared was the threat of extinction. Taz first appeared in his own movie in 1954 but pretty much disappeared a decade later. Then in the 1990s he scored a three-season show on TV.

Maybe the real Tasmanian Devil will also score a comeback. The fierce little guy was declared an endangered species in 2009, after a decade of decline because of a facial cancer spreading through the population.

I first saw one at Cleland Wildlife Park in South Australia and was surprised an animal with such a wild reputation was so small. They were once common in Australia, but the wild population is now found only in the island state of Tasmania. Scientists believe they were wiped out on the mainland by dingoes brought over by settlers.

Now there’s new hope for the devils, in spite of an inexplicable strain of cancer that has wiped out 80% of the population on Tasmania. Unlike other cancers, this one is contagious. Hoping to find a cure, University of Tasmania researchers injected two related devils with the cancer. One of them developed tumors, but the other one, Cedric, proved immune to several of the cancer strains. The difference between the two half brothers was the genetic contribution of parents from different areas.

While scientists from Australia and the U.S. are collaborating on gene sequencing to save the Tasmanian Devil, they are making discoveries that may offer insight into human cancers. Dr. Vanessa Hayes of the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia says, “We are opening the doors for other cancer researchers, who we will hope will benefit significantly from this research.”

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Photo by Cathryn Wellner

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Muriel Servaege
Muriel Servaege3 years ago

Thank you for sharing. I'm more interested in Tasmanian devils than in humans, I must say.
But if both of them can benefit from the new research, I'll be happy.

Duane B.
.3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sylvie Bermannova

They should get their priorities straight: Either they mean to save from extinction Tasmanian Devils that are suffering from the outbreak of cancer, or they want to experiment on them to find a cure for human cancer -- they cannot have it both ways. Both issues are important, but they need tackling individually, without a shift of focus. I fail to see how this existing approach fully benefits the Tasmanian Devil, and it is doubtful whether it is beneficial to humans either, since this species differs from humans and does not have the same type of cancer that people usually have. We should be striving to save these and other endangered species, which is a question of biological diversity and the uniqueness of each species. And we should try to heal ourselves without abusing, torturing, and killing other species in scientific research, as it is selfish and unethical.

Tamara Asencio
Tamara Asencio4 years ago

Maybe scientist can use their own mothers and children on experimentation. "An eye for an eye" After all animals have their own families too. If it's someone's turn to die,then it is their turn to die >>> and that is God's will not ours to command.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams4 years ago

There is a virus that can cause cancer in both women and female mice. Maybe our scientists can try working on a vaccine against it.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams4 years ago

There is a virus that can cause cancer in both women and female mice. Maybe our scientists can try working on a vaccine against it.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim4 years ago

Aw, poor Taz. I hope they find something soon that could help the whole population.

Christina V.

Cathryn, I would suggest that you re-read the article from which you have misquoted. No "settlers" ever took dingoes to Tasmania! They are a native dog and were seen as vermin by white farmers, hence, hunted and killed. The article states that the dingoe may have been an element in the extintion of the THYLACINE, because of its more efficient hunting skills. The facial cancers from which the Tassie Devil (not TAZ) suffers is endemic: it is presumed to be a viral cancer, because it is spread by contact during fighting. The use of 1080 in Tamanian forest is a contentious issue; it has been previously used to kill and eradicate non-native species such as wild dogs (not dingoes) wild cats and eagles. In Tasmania it is used to kill native browsing animals

Nicola Redwoodforest

It is wrong to inject the Tasmanian Devils with carcinogens and use them as slaves for humans to develop cancer medicine. The animals are equally valuable to humans. They don't deserve to be treated like that. On top of all they are an endangered species. But all animals deserve to be protected from harm like carcinogens. The medical industry has grown out of proportion so much that they have such a powerful lobby which pays their way through politics, government, and society. They pay for cancer commericals on TV and other brain washing techniques in public broadcasting to get people to believe in pharma medicine and not any more into their own healing abilities. They have lawyers and they sabotage herbal medicine. Johnson has a YouTube channel on which they blocked me because I was talking about herbs. The truth is that particularly fresh and wild plants have healing characteristics which by far outweigh the medicinal value of pharmaceutical medicine. The key is to get good herb books about your local medicinal plants.

Randall S.
Randy Stein4 years ago

I think they deserve to be saved from extinction. Okay, so they may not be the sweetest, cutest, or loveable creatures, but . . . I know a lot of people who fit that description, and if they have a right to live then so should Tasmanian Devils.