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Four Tassie Devils Have Shown Immunity To Deadly Face Cancer

It provides some hope for the species that's being wiped out.

19/10/2016 1:25 PM AEDT | Updated 23/10/2016 1:04 PM AEDT
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Tasmanian devils have been afflicted by a contagious, lethal face cancer.

It's the plot for an apocalyptic drama: a horrific, mystery illness appears, killing everyone it infects and now, 20 years later, the population is pushed to the brink, with small safety colonies offshore.

And then, out of the wild, four infected emerge that have been shown to fight the illness. They could be the species' hope for survival, if only their special abilities can be passed on to their offspring.

This is the case for the plight of the Tasmanian devil.

In 1996, researchers first observed a few of the the small, black and white critters had some sort of horrible face tumour.

Ho New / Reuters
The devastating effect of an infected Tasmanian devil.

Every devil that was infected with the tumour eventually died, and researchers discovered it was a form of cancer, named the devil facial tumour disease.

They are now an endangered species and the population has been reduced by 80 percent, leading Australia Zoo to estimate their extinction in the wild in 15 years.

Yet there is some hope in the findings led by researchers at Menzies Institute for Medical Research that found evidence of four devils who had the disease, were able to fight it, and seemingly cure themselves.

Study coauthor Gregory Woods said this was the first evidence that wild devils could mount an immune response against the disease.

"In those devils, the tumours disappeared completely," Woods told The Huffington Post Australia.

"This is rather unique as every devil seemed to die from the disease but it looks like there is a small proportion that can respond and mount an immune response."

And can these four breed and pass on their abilities?

"I wish we knew that," he said.

"These samples have been collected in the field over a number of years and it wasn't until they were back in the lab that this result was discovered.

"Ask me again in 20 years."

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