Cedric is only hope as disease hits Tasmanian devil

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The Independent Online

He has a blood-curdling scream and he fought like a devil when he was trapped, but Cedric may hold the key to the survival of his species.

Australia's population of Tasmanian devils has been devastated by a mysterious disease that causes disfiguring and usually fatal muzzle tumours. Wildlife experts say the carnivorous marsupials face extinction in the wild within 10 to 20 years unless the spread of the disease can be halted.

Now Cedric has given scientists new hope. When he was injected with dead facial tumour cells he produced antibodies – the first devil to do so. That means other devils with his mix of genes may be resistant to the disease, or capable of responding to a vaccine.

Researchers at the University of Tasmania described this as the most promising development of their five-year battle to prevent the creatures from going the way of the extinct Tasmanian tiger. "I think this is the most exciting thing that has happened in this programme," Greg Woods told The Australian newspaper. "The devils could be their own saviours."

Cedric and his half-brother, Clinky, were captured nine months ago and injected with dead cells. While Cedric produced an immune response, Clinky did not. Scientists say the two males have a different genetic make-up. Only Cedric's recognised the disease as an invader.

Two months ago, the pair were injected with live tumour cells. The disease has a six-month incubation period. Clinky is expected to develop tumours soon, but it is hoped that Cedric's immune system will fight them off.

If Cedric and other devils with similar genetic make-up prove resistant to the disease, scientists may establish a breeding programme to propagate the genes through the population.

The disease has wiped out an estimated half of the devil population in the past decade. There may be as few as 20,000 left, with the disease prevalent in two-thirds of the island. Cedric and Clinky were caught on the west coast, which remains disease-free. On the east coast, the devils are genetically similar but when exposed to the cancer, they have no resistance because their genes do not recognise the disease as foreign.

The cancer is believed to be transmitted mouth to mouth when the snarling, cantankerous creatures fight over food. It takes root in the mouth and pushes out the teeth. Many affected devils die of starvation.

Alex Kriess, another researcher, told ABC radio that if Cedric remains healthy, it would indicate that "either we can immunise some devils with the vaccine, or that some devils might be resistant to the disease".

Dr Woods believes there are three genetic groups of devils. The first are genetically very similar to the tumour cells, and there is probably no hope for them. The second, like Cedric, are completely different and therefore naturally resistant. The third group would need a vaccine to protect them.