Hope in hell

BBC Wildlife

A treatment trial on Tasmanian devils has had unmatched success in combating the contagious cancer that has killed more than 70% of the species. But devil experts said the treatment could only be applied in captivity, meaning the endangered species’ survival in the wild remains uncertain.

Bonorong - Devil- Barrie Irons

Tasmanian government researchers injected the drug EBC-46 into advanced Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) lesions on four devils captured from the wild.

“Within 20-30 minutes you notice a difference in the tumours and by 24 hours down the track you could see that they had basically died. It’s a pretty dramatic response,” said study leader Stephen Pyecroft.

It is the first time a treatment trial on DFTD has succeeded. Pyecroft described the results as “remarkable” despite the subjects of the trial eventually dying from the cancer, which had already spread internally.

“It’s the only thing that’s killed the tumours. All the standard oncology stuff, none of it touches it,” said Pyecroft. “I think if you had an animal with early infections of small tumours that hadn’t gone walkabout, if you can pick that window of opportunity before they metasticise, then it’s a little bit more useful.”

How the drug acted against tumours was not completely understood, said Pyecroft. But it seemed to disrupt the blood supply to the growths, destroying cancer cells while leaving surrounding tissue intact.

Devil expert Nick Mooney said that treatment would only ever be applicable in captivity. But in the event of the disease appearing within the quarantined insurance population, he said, “a treatment would be fantastic to have, so it is of conservation value.”

Genetic diversity within the dwindling wild population, and those in captivity, is a major concern for devil conservationists. The ability to cure diseased devils from rare genetic groups could help keep the gene pool as wide as possible.