Demonstration of immune responses against devil facial tumour disease in wild Tasmanian devils

Biol Lett. 2016 Oct;12(10):20160553. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0553.


Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is a recently emerged fatal transmissible cancer decimating the wild population of Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii). Biting transmits the cancer cells and the tumour develops in the new host as an allograft. The literature reports that immune escape mechanisms employed by DFTD inevitably result in host death. Here we present the first evidence that DFTD regression can occur and that wild devils can mount an immune response against the disease. Of the 52 devils tested, six had serum antibodies against DFTD cells and, in one case, prominent T lymphocyte infiltration in its tumour. Notably, four of the six devils with serum antibody had histories of DFTD regression. The novel demonstration of an immune response against DFTD in wild Tasmanian devils suggests that a proportion of wild devils can produce a protective immune response against naturally acquired DFTD. This has implications for tumour-host coevolution and vaccine development.

Keywords: Tasmanian devil; devil facial tumour disease; emerging infectious disease; immune response; transmissible cancer.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Facial Neoplasms / immunology
  • Facial Neoplasms / veterinary*
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I / immunology
  • Immunoglobulin G / blood
  • Immunoglobulin G / immunology
  • Lymphocytes, Tumor-Infiltrating / immunology
  • Marsupialia / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology


  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I
  • Immunoglobulin G