A research team in Geelong may have unlocked the key to stopping cancer in Tasmanian devils - and it's a key that might just be useful for humans, too.
The team headed by Dr Beata Ujvari, a research fellow at Deakin University’s Centre for Integrative Ecology in Geelong, has found Tasmanian devils who do not suffer from the cancer killing its species have higher levels of a particular naturally-occuring antibodies in their immune system. Their results have been published in Nature Scientific Reports.
“We looked at Tasmanian devils that had cancer and the devils that didn’t. And then we looked for levels of natural antibodies in each group, and those who didn’t have the cancer were seen to have higher levels of these antibodies,” Dr Ujvari tells SBS.
"It took us four years to find it!" she says, laughing.
The research was inspired by similar studies that have taken place in humans and mice.
“We used it as an analogy. In human and mice studies, there have been similar results where antibodies were injected into subjects with cancer, with positive results,” says Dr Ujvari.
This form of cancer treatment where antibodies are injected into patients either directly or in the form of a vaccine is called "active immunotherapy".
“It is where they either directly treat patients with antibodies or they develop anti-tumour vaccines that increase production of natural antibodies in the human body,” says Dr Ujvari.
Though available to some human patients, active immunotherapy is still in its infancy and not yet commonly used to treat cancer as it is still under research and development.
“It’s already used in melanoma and neuroblastoma treatments. Still, it’s not common. They are developing it, but it has a big future,” Dr Ujvari says.
Deakin team's research contributes to the conservation of the Tasmanian devil, pushing forward the development of a potential cancer vaccine.
"But you know how long these things can take - years!" says Ujvari.
Therefore the next step, says Dr Ujvari, is to bring the study away from observations and into the lab to test these antibodies on cell-cultures.
“To implement the next step, we still need to understand the exact mechanisms of these antibodies, to tease it out in order to understand how our discovery could contribute to developing a vaccine or treatment,” she says.