Page last updated at 03:05 GMT, Friday, 1 January 2010

Cancer cure hope for Tasmanian devils

A Tasmanian Devil
Experts say Tasmanian devils could be extinct in the wild within 35 years

Scientists fighting a cancer that threatens to wipe out Australia's Tasmanian devils say they have made a breakthrough.

A contagious facial tumour has cut the number of the animals by more than half in 10 years.

But researchers say they have now identified the cell type that prompts the cancer and are developing a test to diagnose tumours at an early stage.

Tasmanian devils are famed for their spine-chilling shrieks and bad temper.

They are the world's largest marsupial carnivores and only found on the island state of Tasmania.

Tumours spread among groups of devils through biting, and infected animals die within months of the symptoms first appearing.

An international team of researchers has been working on finding a cure and their breakthrough was reported in the latest edition of the journal Science.

"Our findings represent a big step forward in the race to save the devils from extinction," Elizabeth Murchison, of the US Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Australian National University, wrote in the study.

Researchers warned that with no diagnostic tests, treatments or vaccines currently available, the entire species could be extinct in 25 to 35 years.

"Now that we've taken a good look at the tumours' genetic profile, we can start hunting for genes and pathways involved in tumour formation," said researcher Greg Hannon.

In May, the Australian government raised the protection level for Tasmanian devils from vulnerable to endangered.

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