COVID-19 vaccines give ‘huge boost’ to researchers trying to save Tassie devils

Researchers trying to protect Tasmanian devils from a deadly disease wreaking havoc on wildlife have received a “huge boost” from an unlikely source: the COVID-19 vaccine.

About 80 percent of the wild Tasmanian devil population has been wiped out by the devil’s transmissible facial tumor disease, which was first discovered in 1996.

A second type of demonic facial tumor was found in 2014 in the Cygnet area of ​​southern Tasmania, and there are concerns it will spread to other parts of the state.

“Some unlucky devils have been found with both types of devilish facial tumor disease (DFTD),” said scientist Andy Flies of the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research.

Researchers have been working for years to develop a more effective vaccine for DFTD, but leading COVID-19 vaccines such as those from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have accelerated that process.

“It’s allowed us to see the best way to do it, how to get the permits to do it, and what safeguards are needed,” said Dr. Flies.

“Technology just got a huge boost, and that has helped us and will hopefully help the devil.”

While an earlier vaccine showed some encouraging signs in some captive devils, it had limitations.

“Although the fiends we vaccinated did mount an immune response to DFTD, it didn’t protect them from getting the tumors,” said scientist Ruth Pye of the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania.

“This new vaccine that we are working on is a much more advanced technique technically.”

dr. Pye said previous vaccines didn’t protect devils from getting tumors.ABC News: Luke Bowden

So how does it work?

Like the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson injections, this vaccine uses a weakened adenovirus to carry genetic “instructions” to make proteins that the immune system can learn to recognize.

It allows the immune system to learn to fight the real thing.

But instead of putting SARS-CoV-2 in the vaccine, scientists will choose proteins that are found in tumor cells from the devil’s face, but not in healthy devils.

“The immune system goes to investigate and says, ‘This one doesn’t look good, I’m going to kill that cell,'” Dr Flies said.

A Tasmanian devil prowls around a wildlife sanctuary.
Clinical trials of the vaccine on Tasmanian devils are expected to begin early next year.ABC News: Luke Bowden

The vaccine isn’t ready yet, but researchers are already looking at the best and most effective way to administer it to a carnivorous marsupial.

They are looking at an oral bait vaccine that has helped control the spread of rabies among foxes on four different continents, including the Americas.

“We’ll put the vaccine in the bait, we’ll put it out, and the devils will eat it and get vaccinated,” said Dr Flies.

“We’ve started doing some initial trials on what scavengers like to eat and hopefully other animals don’t like to eat, but it turns out that a lot of animals like to eat things they shouldn’t eat.”

Clinical trials of the vaccine are expected to begin early next year, and Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary near Hobart will play a major role in the project.

“Bonorong has been generous in allowing us to build abodes for the devil in the sanctuary to conduct clinical trials for the vaccine,” said Dr. pye.

“There are experienced caretakers at Bonorong who can take care of the devils on a daily basis, and an animal hospital if we need it.”

Not a simple housing

Callie pulls on Greg's shirt sleeve as he watches in amusement.
Greg Irons, the director of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, said devils are critical to a healthy ecosystem.ABC News: Luke Bowden

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary Director Greg Irons said building enclosures for wild Tasmanian devils was no easy task.

“They can climb a bit if you have the wrong walls, they can dig, and of course there’s always a risk that other animals will come in with a Tassie devil too,” Mr Irons said.

“It’s been a huge job to plan exactly how it will function properly.”

Close up of Tasmanian devil with facial tumor
Tasmanian devils pass on transmissible cancer cells to each other by biting.Delivered: Rodrigo Hamedé

The new technology has caused a lot of excitement among naturalists who have seen the impact of the diabolical facial tumor firsthand.

“It [The disease] it looks like something has exploded from within, it’s impossible not to be sad,” said Irons.

About 50 Tasmanian devils are known to have survived DFTD in the wild, but there is hope that a vaccine could boost the devil’s immune system to prevent disease and go a long way towards preserving the species.

“Tassie devils are critical to a healthy ecosystem,” said Mr Irons.

Anyone who wants to support vaccine research against demonic facial tumors can: donate to the Tasmanian devil appeal.

Posted updated

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