A team of Spanish and Australian scientists have discovered drugs used to help humans could be successful in treating Tasmanian devils suffering from the deadly facial tumour disease.

Key points:

  • Spanish researchers say drugs used to lower cholesterol in humans could be successful in treating Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease
  • The researchers discovered that tumour cells require a minimum amount of cholesterol to multiply
  • Lead researcher Dr Maria  Ikonomopoulou says the next stage would be to test the drug on diseased animals

It is hoped the breakthrough could help delay the spread of the tumour and help protect the endangered marsupials from extinction.

One of the study’s lead researchers, Dr Manuel A. Fernandez-Rojo, said manipulating the cholesterol content in deadly facial tumour disease cells led the research team to look at cholesterol-lowering drugs as potential treatments.

“Our laboratory experiments showed devil facial tumour disease cells grew and spread more, using glucose as a source of energy, if they were stimulated with drugs that activated the nuclear receptor LXR [Liver-X-receptor].

“We used this understanding of the biology that drives the disease to examine if statins, which are drugs that inhibit cholesterol synthesis, would stop the tumour cells multiplying,” he said.

“We found statins reduced the growth of the devil facial tumours in the laboratory and we believe more research should now be undertaken to see whether these cholesterol-lowering drugs could be used to inhibit, or at least slow, the growth of deadly facial tumour disease and hopefully help protect the species.”

A man and a woman who research Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease stand with brick building in background.

Dr Manuel A Fernández-Rojo and Dr Maria Ikonomopoulou said the next stage would be to test the drug on diseased animals.(

Supplied: Save the Tasmanian Devil Program 

)

The researchers believe the metabolic drivers underlying devil facial tumour disease have not been thoroughly studied until now.

They discovered that tumour cells required a minimum amount of cholesterol to multiply and if the cholesterol synthesis was reduced, the tumours did not grow. 

Most of the study was conducted at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, with the Tasmanian Government providing the deadly facial tumour disease cells through the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. 

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary director Greg Irons said he found the research fascinating.

“It could lead us a step closer to either preventing this occurring, being able to stop it, or even slowing it down,” he said. 

Tasmanian devil feeding on dead wildlife

Researchers have found cholsterol-lowering drugs could help Tasmanian devils with facial tumour disease.(

Supplied: Save the Tasmanian Devil Program 

)

Another of the study’s lead researchers, Greek-Australian scientist Dr Maria Ikonomopoulou, said the next stage would be to test the drug on diseased animals.

“Obviously in the wild, it is difficult to just go chasing the diseased animals by ourselves, so we hope that we can discuss this more with the Tasmanian authorities to see if we can take it to the next step.”

Mr Irons said it would be relatively simple to administer cholesterol medication to the devils.

“People think that they’re these incredibly ferocious, smelly, dirty, killing machines when in all honesty, they’re actually very placid and very shy,” he said.

“There’s a myriad of things that should be done without a devil, behind the scenes wherever possible, before we start involving live animals and potential welfare issues.

“But those early indications from the write-up that was released are really intriguing and they make a lot of sense.”

Hopes the findings may have implications for cancers in humans

Dr Ikonomopoulou is hopeful the research findings may have implications for highly aggressive cancers in humans.

Two images of Tasmanian devils, one healthy devil and another devil with facial tumour disease.

A healthy Tasmanian devil, and one with facial tumour disease.(

Supplied: Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

)

“Human cancer cells undergo similar metabolic adaptation to grow as those exhibited by deadly facial tumour disease cells in our research.

“This raises the question of whether statins, which are currently prescribed for the treatment of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in humans, could also be used to help treat very aggressive human cancers such as melanoma, pancreatic or colon cancer.”

But for now, there is a combined effort from all around the world to save the Tasmanian devil.

“In the Tasmanian tiger, what a tragic and terrible story that is, and largely in the hands of us as humans,” Mr Irons said.

“This shows us the damage that we can do when we make the wrong decision. I like to think that we learned from that, that we look back on that, and say ‘okay we’re never going to let this happen again.'” 

Human cholesterol drug shows promise in fighting deadly disease threatening Tasmanian devils
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