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back to article 'Immortal cancer' found in Australia

Scientists investigating a cancer that is killing off the world's largest carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil, have found that the disease is effectively immortal. Tasmanian Devils are about the size and weight of a very large domestic cat, but possess jaws with unusually strong crushing power and make impressively nasty …

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Meh

Sun it hot and grass is green...

Aren't all cancerous cells immortal? What isn't mentioned here, is that the disease was only found to be cancer, after genetic tests on some infected devils revealed that the tumors all had the same DNA.

If any human cancers ever became contagious, we'd be screwed as a species.

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Holmes

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

While you are correct to some degree few points are not quite true or missing the point:

Tumors do not have necessarily the same DNA. Due to the large number of generations (think how many cell divisions in the total population) mutations would be accumulating and sooner ot later you would have heterogenous cancer cell population. Actually this would be the rule, not the exception.

Also contagious cancers are know to occur only in highly inbred species (dogs, Tasmanian devil). So in humans cancer would be likely contagious among royalties and the Apalachia in Southeastern USA. Hmmm, I could mourn the Southern folks, the rest would be bad only for the yellow press.

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Meh

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

As mentioned, this disease is not so much contagious in the traditional sense, as contagious in the "Aliens" sense. Because the Devils were once nearly wiped out, they are apparently so inbred (much much more than dogs) that a bit of tissue from one that is implanted in another will not be recognized as foreign by the immune system of the recipient. The disease tumors grow on the face; since the Devils fight one another for dominance using their mouths and teeth, it's common for an unaffected Devil to get a piece of a rival's tumor tissue into an open wound on its face. In other species, this would be quickly killed off by the immune system. In the Devils, it's assumed to be part of the animal's own normal tissue, and so can grow unchecked until, like the Alien's offspring, it kills its host (though without all the abdominal tissue volcano dramatics).

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Pirate

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

"Aren't all cancerous cells immortal?"

Sort of, most are. My own personal cancer cells have proven to be mortal (to date) when exposed to chemo and the surgeon's knife.

My understanding of the main reason I got colon cancer was because the mortal bit flipped in one cell. RAM is not the only entity that suffers random bit errors when they get older.

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Devil

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

"If any human cancers ever became contagious, we'd be screwed as a species."

Does cancer caused by a virus count as a contagious cancer?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_papilloma_virus

That's why we started vaccinating young girls against HPV.

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Unhappy

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

Yes, but the difference here is that this is ONE cancer affecting all Tasmanian devils. Each human cancer is a unique mutation in that persons cells, which is why cancer isn't contagious.

Dogs also have a similar cancer, which is sexually transmitted. Thanks, nature, for that image :O

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

Royal bashing aside which is bad enough. Wishing anyone to suffer such a cancer is nasty at the least.

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Ru
Boffin

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

"If any human cancers ever became contagious, we'd be screwed as a species"

Uh, that doesn't actually make any sense. Why is a transmissible cancer any worse than HIV or antibiotic resistant tuberculosis, to name a couple of unpleasant diseases du jour? Hell, what makes it any worse than historic transmissable diseases like the black death?

This particular cancer spreads when infected animals bite the face of uninfected ones. It isn't trivially spreadable by other means, and doesn't appear to do much metastasis when in place. Cancer treatments for people would seem to be sophisticated enough to deal with anything similar that happened to affect humans.

"Aren't all cancerous cells immortal?"

They don't 'age' like conventional animal cell lines (or at least those with telomeres) but they're also genetically damaged. Not all cancerous mutations are necessarily viable in the long run, though many obviously are.

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Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

"Also contagious cancers are know to occur only in highly inbred species (dogs, Tasmanian devil). So in humans cancer would be likely contagious among royalties and the Apalachia in Southeastern USA."

They need to be spread by some method from person to person into bloodstreams. Biting works very well, sharing needles might work. Sex probably wouldn't work very well-STIs have much more equipment for breaking out of the vagina and into the bloodstream than cancer cells do.

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Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

Dog's cancer is STD.

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Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

Should have put a joke alert first. Oh well. Not that I am particularly fond of royalties.

And I forget this is a UK forum. Most of the times I respect and like UK. But sometimes I do not.

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Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

What is transmissible is the risk factor, not the cancer itself. Big difference.

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Silver badge

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

"If any human cancers ever became contagious, we'd be screwed as a species."

Only screwed in as much as it would be a bad idea to go and rub open wounds up against other people's fungating tumours. The thought of that doesn't appeal to me, and I suspect it wouldn't to many others either.

It has been known for a while that this disease is a transmissable cancer; I believe this new research has found that it is a certain type of cancer, where the telomeres* do not shorten on cell division, thus meaning that the cell line can continue indefinitely.

*Note, telomere, not telemore or telomore, from the Greek telos, 'the end' and moros 'the part', literally 'the end part'

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Facepalm

Re: Sun it hot and grass is green...

D'oh - obviously, meros, not moros. Muphry's law strikes again.

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Ahh my wonderful homeland... not content to simply be the model for every Sci-Fi Deathworld ever, what with everything bar the sheep wanting to kill, poison, and/or eat you (and I'm not so sure about the sheep), you have to give us immortal face eating cancer as well...

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" with everything bar the sheep wanting to kill, poison, and/or eat you (and I'm not so sure about the sheep)"

Okay, so it's set in New Zealand rather than Australia, but... Black Sheep

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Bronze badge

Reverse the polarity of the Neutron flow.

Wouldn't a better study be "How the heck did the cancer get super-Telomeres" so that we could gene-splice this into humans and thus stave off old age?

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Silver badge

Re: Reverse the polarity of the Neutron flow.

I guess we could ask Henrietta Lacks.

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JDX
Gold badge

Re: Reverse the polarity of the Neutron flow.

Why would staving off old age be a good thing, don't we have enough problems?!

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Silver badge

Re: Reverse the polarity of the Neutron flow.

Beware what you wish form, you might get it.

I have this image of an ageing, degenerating brain, and a mind bereft of all joy, in a perfectly healthy body, which stubbornly refuses to die. As brain cells tend not to divide, and are typically not replenished (which may or may not be an adaptation linked to our long memory, and intellectual abilities), I doubt whether it would benefit from the same rejuvenation treatment as the rest of the body.

Scary thought that.

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Re: Reverse the polarity of the Neutron flow.

Telomeres aren't the only reason we die of old age. Unlocking our telomeres would be much more likely to increase the rate of cancers than giving us immortality.

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Boffin

Re: Reverse the polarity of the Neutron flow.

Unlocking our telomeres would be much more likely to increase the rate of cancers than giving us immortality.

More realistically, it might give most of us a healthy life extending to 100, maybe 120 years. How successfully depends on how many of the diseases and failings of old age are caused by the biological senescence mechanism, and now many by other causes such as accumulating cellular mutations.

Alzheimers is not a certainty. I remember interviews with Jeanne Calment (she lived to 122, despite smoking heavily all her life!) and Harry Patch (the last veteran of WW1). Both were of sound mind when their bodies quit on them. So are the majority of people who (mostly) die in their 70s, 80s and 90s from causes related directly or indirectly to cellular senescence.

Wrt cancer: as other causes of death become curable or treatable, its incidence increases. It's also more likely the older we are, because of accumulating cellular mutations. Personally I'd take an increased risk of eventually falling to cancer, than the near-inevitability of falling apart in my 80s or 90s when my body's self-repair mechanisms start to turn off.

Immortality is not even conceptually attractive. However, a few more decades of reasonably enjoyable life most certainly is.

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Devil

Re: Reverse the polarity of the Neutron flow.

@Michael H.F. Wilkinson:

I believe you have just described--and explained--Dick Cheney! Well done!

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Anonymous Coward

Another study...

On the same topic (DFTD) there was another study released; Seems the more aggressive the devil the more susceptible to catching the cancer they are.

http://m.sbs.com.au/news/#article1688887_Aggression-earns-Tasmanian-devils-tumour-disease

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Linux

Re: Another study...

The cancer is transmitted through biting and more aggressive Devils likely bite more and get bitten more. It was mentioned in the article.

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Childcatcher

Kewl photo!

Sadly, the paper isn't worth reporting on except as the photo ensures that our "...morbid and vulgar curiosity is slaked, and slaked with a baleful beverage."*

"Immortal" tumors have been known for over 50 years (see for example the interesting book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" about HeLa cells), and the "immortal" nature of the terrible DFT disease cells has likewise been known for many years. The existence and importance for continued cell division of telomere-maintaining enzymes was discovered in the 1980s. Thus, this paper merely confirms, as expected, that the immortal DFTD cells have their telomere-maintenance enzymes turned on to a level that allows them to divide indefinitely. Any useful connection to human disease treatment is extremely unlikely.

The photo does bring home the sad sprint toward extinction of a fellow furry creature, no matter its ill temperament.

*(quote from "The Stowe-Byron Controversy: A Complete Resume of all that has been written and said upon the Subject, Reprinted from ..."; retrieved 9/3/12 at http://books.google.com/books?id=XI5SAAAAcAAJ&dq=morbid+interest+slaked&source=gbs_navlinks_s; worth a look as quite a breathless example of 19th century celebrity scandal-mongering)

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Headmaster

“The researchers have elsewhere offered the analogy that telomores are like the plastic wrapping at the end of shoe laces that prevent fraying …"

which, as everybody knows, is called an aglet.

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Coat

As saved by Phineas & Ferb (too much kids TV)

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Unhappy

It's somewhat sad...

That over 90% of a unique local species can be wiped out and the vast majority of the public is blissfully unaware and uncaring, yet if you harpoon a few whales you end up with Home and Away starlets lining up to jump on a boat and throw rancid butter at you.

Presumably this is because Whales make people go "awwww" and afflicted devils make people say "ewwww", but It's still a sad indictment of popular "conservation". I suppose another factor is that there are no foreigners to hate for the prevalence of DFTD which makes it even more unappealling to armchair "conservationists".

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Re: It's somewhat sad...

There's a great difference between a species dying out due to a virulent disease and a species dying out because we killed it.

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Devil

Re: It's somewhat sad...

Besides, if you've seen a piccie of a Devil without a tumour on it's face, that's pretty much "d'awwww" as well. With sharp bitey teeth.

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Unhappy

Re: It's somewhat sad...

@ cloudgazer:

There's also a great difference between what Australia engaged in during the heyday of whaling (driving many species of whale near extinction) and the well regulated whaling that a handful of countries engage in at the moment. In spite of current limited whaling, the populations of most whale species are increasing (including those that are hunted today). Humpbacks are recovering at a rate of 10% per year in the regions surrounding Australia (http://iwcoffice.org/index.php?cID=status) as are many other species whose breeding grounds are in the area - some to pre-exploitation levels. They clearly don't require the levels of assistance that the devils do, and the devils are clearly at much greater risk - cancer doesn't have moratoriums and international commissions to prevent it's spread, the only way to stop it is research - which requires money, which sadly doesn't get spent because people are too busy gawking at whales.

"Last Chance To See" By Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine goes a long way towards explaining this frustrating aspect of conservation in the last chapter. Unfortunately only the pretty animals are apparently worth saving, and the world's largest carnivorous marsupial (as if it wasn't rare enough as it is, it's one of the last members of the family) is forgotten - partly because it's ugly, and partly because apparently there aren't enough people trying to kill it.

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Silver badge

Re: It's somewhat sad...

Cancer -- it's life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Another form of life competing with others.

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Unhappy

Re: It's somewhat sad...

There's a great difference between a species dying out due to a virulent disease and a species dying out because we killed it.

But we did kill this species, just less directly. We killed almost all of them. They bred back, but because the species had at one point been reduced to a small number of individuals, they all share a very restricted gene pool. Hence this cancer, which can infect all of them, and which may cause their extinction.

There may also be a wider lesson. Another species which came through a genetic choke point is our own. It's reckoned that at some point about 80,000 years ago, the entire population of homo sapiens was less than a thousand. We too are far more vulnerable to extinction by some new plague, than most other species.

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Coat

Re: It's somewhat sad...

I always thought that Tasmanian Devils were so damned *cute*, what with moving in little tornadoes, and marrying devilishes who arrive by plane looking for "object: matrimony".

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Anonymous Coward

Re: It's somewhat sad...

I'm not in favor of the starlet approach, but I'm pretty sure that we have wiped out large percentages of most whale species.

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Silver badge

Re: It's somewhat sad...

Presumably this is because Whales make people go "awwww" and afflicted devils make people say "ewwww", but It's still a sad indictment of popular "conservation".

Why? What are the grounds for preferring a conservationism that does not differentiate among its possible beneficiaries, versus one that does? And one that in particular ranks species by criteria that make them valuable to us, such as aesthetic appeal?

This is a serious question. I'm wondering why you think a species-blind conservatism is superior.

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Silver badge

"... telomores are like the plastic wrapping at the end of shoe laces "

So at extreme age one isn't a decrepit decaying husk of a person - just a fraying shoe-lace. Seems more comforting, somehow.

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Coat

Re: "... telomores are like the plastic wrapping at the end of shoe laces "

Even more comforting is the implication that achieving immortality is just a matter of putting a bit of duct-tape in the right places.

Yet more evidence to support the postulate that everything can be fixed with duct-tape.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "... telomores are like the plastic wrapping at the end of shoe laces "

DNA therapy Retro-virus time Me thinks... how cool would that be though, a virus to extend life...

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Silver badge

Re: Cancer Duct Tape

Patent Pending.

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Re: Cancer Duct Tape

As long as Apple haven't already patented "Duct Tape".

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Paris Hilton

Re: Cancer Duct Tape

Apple duct tape is shiny and has rounded corners

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Silver badge

Re: "... shoe laces "

My shoe laces keep coming undone - they get caught in the font gears on my bike and are prematurely frayed.

Aglets disappear, the lace gets shorter, fraying increases.

Life - in one form or another - goes on.

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Thumb Up

Heard about this a few years ago on Radiolab... really interesting piece in this podcast... http://www.radiolab.org/2010/may/17/

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Anonymous Coward

"there is no indication it is transmissible to humans"

Ah, like BSE, H1N1 or bird flu, etc...

And as for the notion that research into this Tasmanian Devil cancer will lead to a cure for human cancer, well how come decades of research into human cancers, costing incalculable billions, hasn't found a cure for Tasmanian Devils, let alone the humans at the centre of the research.

If it does transfer to humans, I wonder what kind of stigma will be associated to it? The sad fact is, HIV has a 'certain' perception. As do people who have got cancer by smoking. Or people with diabetes due to a poor diet (I know it's not a contracted disease in the conventional sense). So you can be sure people with this immortal cancer would be viewed in a certain light, depending on what the perceived 'usual' method of contracting it is.

If Tasmanian Devils only catch it through biting each other, I assume the likely way for humans to share it would be sex. You'd like to think blood banks are already catching things like this...

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Anonymous Coward

Given this creature isn't found in many other places in the world is this not some sort of disease that has come about due to a small gene pool? ie. they're rather inbred.

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Michael H F Wilkinson wrote:

I have this image of an ageing, degenerating brain, and a mind bereft of all joy, in a perfectly healthy body, which stubbornly refuses to die.

--------------------

You've been watching the X factor, haven't you?

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