The Immune Response of the Tasmanian Devil & Devil Facial Tumour Disease

The Tasmanian devil is under threat of extinction by a contagious cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease. This is a unique situation as cancer is not contagious but this tumour is transmitted between devils through biting. Because the tumour is passed between devils it suggests there is something wrong with the immune system of the devil. However, our studies have clearly shown the Tasmanian devil has a healthy immune response. By performing studies on lymphocytes from devils around the state, we have good evidence to indicate there is limited genetic diversity among the devil population hence the tumour is not recognised and eliminated by the immune system. Our immediate aim is to determine how we can encourage the devil's immune system to recognise and destroy the tumour. We are also screening wild devils to determine if any devils in the wild might be naturally resistant to devil facial tumour disease. The tumour itself is also unique so studies are underway to understand the unique features of this mysterious cancer.

We determined that the Tasmanian devil has a competent immune response and that the transmission between devils is most likely due to a lack of genetic diversity. West coast devils have a much greater diversity than the diseased east coast and we immunised two Tasmanian devils with irradiated DFTD tumour cells. One of these devils responded to the immunisation and when challenged with live tumour cells, resisted the disease. Hence it might be possible to protect some devils by vaccinating. Mixed lymphocyte reactions among eastern and western devils were performed, and some experiments (especially between West vs East devils) showed high reactions, supporting the evidence for increased genetic diversity in the western population.

Research Groups

Related Diseases


Team Leaders

  • Professor Greg Woods (Senior Research Fellow)

Team Members

  • Gabby Brown (PhD Student)
  • Dr Alexandre Kreiss (Research Assistant)
  • Dr Cesar Tovar (PhD Student)

Local Collaborators

  • Dr Silvana Bettiol
  • Dr David Obendorf

External Collaborators

  • Dr Kathy Belov
  • Dr Vanessa Hayes
  • Dr Elizabeth Murchison