The release of 19 immunised devils into Tasmania’s Narawntapu National Park marks an important point in the quest to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction – it is the first time a vaccine against the deadly cancer threatening the species has been tested in the wild.

Previous trials of the vaccine have taken place in the laboratory at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania, where the devil research team led by immunologist Professor Greg Woods has been able to activate an immune response against cancer cells.

Of the 19 devils released, 18 had produced an immune response to the vaccine.

This is an excellent outcome, but the real test will be determining whether the vaccine is effective in protecting devils in the wild, hence the release at Narawntapu.

18/19 devils

released into the wild produced an immune response to the vaccine.

The 19 devils will be monitored after their release and regular blood samples will be collected to confirm that the immune response is still active. If not, the devils may require a booster.

Menzies is working in partnership with the Save Tasmanian Devil Program, as well as national and international scientific collaborators, to help achieve the Tasmanian devil’s long term survival in the wild.

Menzies and the University’s School of Medicine have developed the immunisation technique in association with Dr Martin Pearse, Dr Adriana Baz Morelli and Ms Anabel Silva from CSL Limited.

Immunologist Associate Professor Lynn Corcoran and protein chemist Dr James Murphy, both from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, have assisted in the project by developing tools to measure immune (or antibody) responses and natural devil proteins that stimulate DTFD cells to “reveal” themselves to the devil’s immune system.

Apart from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research and CSL Limited, the University of Tasmania is collaborating with the University of Sydney, the University of Cambridge and the University of Southampton.

Mapping the disease

Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a transmissible cancer which is passed from devil to devil through close contact. The live tumour cells aren’t rejected by the animal’s immune system because the devil’s immune system doesn’t recognise these cells as foreign.

DFTD has been confirmed in devil populations across much of the state of Tasmania, with declines in populations shown through both trapping surveys and annual spotlight counts.  In the north-east region, where a devil with unknown tumours on its face was photographed in 1996, there has been a 95 per cent decline in average sightings.

Further information: www.tassiedevil.com.au

Interested in conducting your own research? Apply now to become a research student.