WSU biologist Andrew Storfer’s work on cancer in Tasmanian devils is one of eight studies awarded funding recently by the National Institutes of Health/ National Science Foundation’s Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases program. Storfer is the principle investigator of an international collaboration with researchers in Australia that received $2.3 million from the NIH to study the evolution of cancer transmission.

Using advanced genomic techniques, Storfer will look for key mutations that appear to be helping some of the animals evolve in response to devil facial tumor disease, a transmissible cancer that has spread across 95 percent of Tasmania. Since its discovery 20 years ago, the disease has reduced the devil population to one-fifth of its size.

Epidemiological models predict that the devil will go extinct. Yet some are surviving, suggesting that they are evolving to fight the disease.

“Devils have rapidly evolved at candidate genes responsible for cancer and immune response, with first signs of antibody production and even complete tumor remission,” Storfer wrote in an abstract of his study.

After isolating mutations that help the devils survive, Storfer’s team plans to develop gene editing techniques that will help identify potential targets for drug-related therapies. The therapies have possible implications for human cancer treatment.