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Lauren Howson

Menzies Research Institute
Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease


A natural curiosity at a young age led me to pursue a career in science. During my studies at the University of Tasmania, undertaking a Medical Research degree, I became particularly interested in cancer and immunology. When I heard about a transmissible cancer that was sweeping through the Tasmanian devil population, I was immediately intrigued and wanted to find out more.

The Tasmanian devil is the largest living carnivorous marsupial, and is currently under threat of extinction. The facial tumour has caused a total population decline of over 60% and it's believed that without intervention, the species will be extinct within 20 years.

Lauren HowsonThe devil facial tumour is unlike other cancers, because it is transmissible. Tumour tissue is transmitted between devils by their biting behaviour during social interaction. So the devil facial tumour can be considered both a tissue graft (similar to organ transplantation in humans) and a tumour. Normally, our body is equipped with a defence against these tissues: our immune system. The same immune cells that fight colds and flu also save us from foreign and tumour tissue.

Since devil facial tumour is 100% lethal, it is clear that the immune system of all devils has failed to recognise and destroy the tumour graft. As part of my Honours research I am focused on finding out why and how the devil facial tumour escapes immune detection, and trying to help save this species from extinction.

After I complete this honours project I hope to continue a career in medical research, undertake a PhD and work in labs overseas to reach my full potential as a cancer and immunology researcher.

Find out more about saving the Tasmanian Devil at http://www.tassiedevil.com.au