Common drugs could help save Tasmanian devils

According to Zoos Victoria, there are fewer than 15,000 Tasmanian devils left in the wild, which is an 80 per cent drop in population since devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) first emerged in the mid-1990s.

There is some good news for the iconic ‘Tassie devils’ however, thanks to some newly published medical research showing that cholesterol-lowering drugs could help delay the spread of the deadly disease, and help protect these endangered Australian marsupials from extinction.

Devil facial tumour disease is a fatal, very aggressive form of transmissible cancer. It is spread through the transfer of living cancer cells when Tasmanian devils bite each other.

However, the metabolic drivers underlying devil facial tumour disease have not been thoroughly studied until now.

The lead researchers, Dr Manuel A. Fernández-Rojo and Dr Maria Ikonomopoulou, studied the molecular and metabolic mechanisms that drive devil facial tumour disease, and found if cholesterol synthesis was drastically reduced, the tumours did not grow.

‘Our laboratory experiments showed DFTD 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). LXR is involved in regulating cellular cholesterol levels,’ Dr Fernández-Rojo said.

‘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.

‘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 DFTD and hopefully help protect the species.’

Dr Maria Ikonomopoulou said the research findings might also have implications for malignant and highly aggressive cancers in humans.

‘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.’

The head of QIMR Berghofer’s Cell and Molecular Biology department, Professor Grant Ramm, who was a co-author on the study said the findings highlight the benefits of researching a wide range of different diseases across species, because of the ultimate potential benefits for human health.

‘This type of cell and molecular biology research, which is being conducted in laboratories across Australia, is critical for understanding the mechanisms of diseases and identifying new therapeutic interventions to treat not only existing health conditions, but also emerging health threats in the future,’ Professor Ramm said.

The Tasmanian devil tumour cells were provided by the Tasmanian Government through the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.

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