animals that catch cancer
animals catch cancer infographic

Infographic: When Cancers Become Parasites

Only a handful of contagious cancers are known to exist, yet they have attracted an increasing number of researchers worldwide trying to understand how and why they arise.

katya katarina zimmer
Katarina Zimmer

After a year teaching an algorithm to differentiate between the echolocation calls of different bat species, Katarina decided she was simply too greedy to focus on one field. Following an internship with The Scientist in 2017, she has been happily freelancing for a number of publications, covering everything from climate change to oncology.

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Apr 1, 2019


So far, only dogs, Tasmanian devils, and four bivalve species are known to carry transmissible cancers, which have varying effects on their hosts.

Host speciesDomestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris)Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)Bivalves (the soft-shelled clam, Mya
, the mussel, Mytilus trossulus, and the cockle species, Cerastoderma edule, and the golden carpet-shell clam, Poltitapes aureus)
CancerCanine transmissible venereal tumor (CTVT)Devil’s facial tumor disease (DFT1 and DFT2)Clam disseminated neoplasia
CTVT manifests as tumors on dogs’ genitals (seen here at base of penis) that rarely result in death. It  regresses on its own or can be treated easily using chemotherapy drugs such as vincristine.
DFT1 and DFT2 form tumors around the mouth and face that restrict the devils’ ability to feed. These...

In one of the most extensive studies of devil facial tumor disease (DFT1) to date, an international team of researchers has uncovered a mechanism that drives the cancer’s metastasis and helps it to evade the Tasmanian devils’ immune system.


1Cancer cells that form DFT1 tumors  overproduce transmembrane enzymes known as ERBB receptors.
2When stimulated by specific proteins—likely EGF and NRG1, which are also overproduced in DFT1 cells—ERBB receptors induce production of a signaling protein and transcription factor called Stat3 and drive its activation.
3In the nucleus, Stat3 drives the production of genes such as MMP2 that are known to trigger metastasis in humans.
4Stat3 also binds to and inhibits another transcription factor, Stat1, which normally drives the expression of genes necessary for the generation of MHC class I molecules.
MHC class I molecules normally interact with receptors on cytotoxic T cells to discriminate self from foreign cells. By downregulating the production of MHC proteins, DFT1 cells are able to evade detection by the animals’ immune system.  
Under normal circumstances, cells lacking MHC markers would be detected by natural killer cells (NK), but for reasons that are unclear, devil NK cells don’t react to DFT1.

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The Scientist April 2019 Issue

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