The role of MHC genes in contagious cancer: the story of Tasmanian devils

Immunogenetics. 2017 Aug;69(8-9):537-545. doi: 10.1007/s00251-017-0991-9. Epub 2017 Jul 11.


The Tasmanian devil, a marsupial species endemic to the island of Tasmania, harbours two contagious cancers, Devil Facial Tumour 1 (DFT1) and Devil Facial Tumour 2 (DFT2). These cancers pass between individuals in the population via the direct transfer of tumour cells, resulting in the growth of large tumours around the face and neck of affected animals. While these cancers are rare, a contagious cancer also exists in dogs and five contagious cancers circulate in bivalves. The ability of tumour cells to emerge and transmit in mammals is surprising as these cells are an allograft and should be rejected due to incompatibility between Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) genes. As such, considerable research has focused on understanding how DFT1 cells evade the host immune system with particular reference to MHC molecules. This review evaluates the role that MHC class I expression and genotype plays in allowing DFT1 to circumvent histocompatibility barriers in Tasmanian devils. We also examine recent research that suggests that Tasmanian devils can mount an immune response to DFT1 and may form the basis of a protective vaccine against the tumour.

Keywords: Contagious cancer; Devil Facial Tumour Disease; MHC; MHC downregulation; Vaccine.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genes, MHC Class I / physiology*
  • Genotype
  • Marsupialia / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / immunology
  • Neoplasms / veterinary*
  • Tasmania