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Tasmanian devil colony shows immunity to cancer

Australian scientists said Wednesday that the discovery of a genetically distinct colony of Tasmanian devils may save the species from being wiped out by a contagious cancer that has decimated the population.

So far, the colony in northwestern Tasmania state has proven immune to the face cancer that has ravaged the iconic animal ā€” made famous worldwide by their Looney Tunes cartoon namesake, Taz.

"We think these devils may be able to see the cancer cells as foreign and mount an immune response against them," lead researcher Kathy Belov said. "We think more animals might survive in the wild than we initially thought."

The furry black animals spread a fast-killing cancer when they bite each other's faces. It causes grotesque facial tumors that eventually prevent them from feeding and can affect their internal organs.

Devil Facial Tumor Disease was discovered in 1996. Since then, the numbers of Tasmanian devils have plummeted by 70 percent. Last spring, Australia listed the devils as an endangered species and current estimates suggest the Tasmanian devil could be extinct within 25 years.

But Belov said the new findings, which were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, buy more time for managing the disease and developing a vaccine.

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