COVID-19 vaccines give ‘huge boost’ to researchers trying to save Tassie demons

Researchers trying to protect Tasmanian devils from a deadly disease that wreaks havoc on animals in the wild have received a “huge boost” from an unlikely source – the COVID-19 vaccine.

About 80% of the wild population of Tasmanian devils have been wiped out by the communicable disease Devil Facial Tumor, which was first discovered in 1996.

A second type of devil’s facial tumor was discovered in the Cygnet area of ​​southern Tasmania in 2014 and there are fears it could spread to other parts of the state.

“Some unlucky fiends have been found with both types of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD),” said scientist Andy Flies, from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania.

Researchers have been working for years to develop a more effective vaccine against DFTD, but leading COVID-19 vaccines such as those created by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have accelerated this process.

“It allowed us to see the best way to do it, how to get the permits to do it and what safeguards are needed,” Dr Flies said.

“Technology just got a huge boost, and it’s helped us and hopefully will help the devil.”

While a previous vaccine showed encouraging signs in some captive demons, it had limitations.

“Although the fiends we vaccinated elicited an immune response against DFTD, this did not protect them against tumors,” said scientist Ruth Pye from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania.

“This new vaccine we are working on is technically a much more advanced technique.”

Dr Pye said previous vaccines did not protect devils against tumors.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

So how does it work?

Like the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots, this vaccine uses a weakened adenovirus to carry genetic “instructions” to make proteins that the immune system can learn to recognize.

It allows the immune system to learn to fight the real thing.

But instead of putting SARS-CoV-2 in the vaccine, scientists will choose proteins that are found in devil’s facial tumor cells but not healthy devil’s.

“The immune system will investigate and say, ‘This one doesn’t look good, I’m going to kill this cell,'” Dr Flies said.

A Tasmanian Devil sniffs its nose in a wildlife reserve.
Clinical trials of the vaccine in Tasmanian devils are expected to begin early next year.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

The vaccine isn’t ready yet, but researchers are already studying the best and most effective way to administer it to a carnivorous marsupial.

They are studying an oral bait vaccine that has helped control the spread of rabies in foxes on four different continents, including America.

“We’ll put the vaccine in the bait, we’ll put it out, and the demons will eat it and get vaccinated,” Dr. Flies said.

“We’ve started doing some initial testing of baits that demons like to eat and hopefully other animals don’t like to eat, but it turns out that a lot of animals like to eat things that they’re not supposed to eat.”

Clinical trials of the vaccine are due to start early next year, and the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary near Hobart will play an important role in the project.

“Bonorong has been generous in allowing us to build demonic enclosures at the sanctuary to conduct clinical trials on the vaccine,” Dr Pye said.

“There are experienced guardians in Bonorong who can treat demons on a daily basis, and a wildlife hospital if we need it.”

Not just a speaker

Callie tugs at Greg's shirt sleeve as he watches in amusement.
Greg Irons, director of the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, said the devils were essential to a healthy ecosystem.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary director Greg Irons said building enclosures for wild Tasmanian devils was no easy task.

“They can climb a bit if you have the wrong walls, they can dig, and of course there’s always a risk of other animals coming in with a Tassie Devil as well,” Irons said.

“It’s been a tremendous amount of work to plan exactly how well this is going to work.”

Close up of Tasmanian devil with facial tumor
Tasmanian devils transmit transmissible cancer cells to each other by biting each other.(Provided by: Rodrigo Hamede )

The new technology has created a lot of excitement among wildlife caregivers who have seen the impact of devil’s facial tumor disease firsthand.

“This [The disease] it feels like something has exploded from within, it’s impossible not to feel sad,” Mr Irons said.

About 50 Tasmanian devils are known to have survived DFTD in the wild, but it is hoped that a vaccine could give the devil’s immune system a boost to prevent the disease and go a long way towards conserving the species.

“Tassie devils are essential to a healthy ecosystem,” Irons said.

Anyone wishing to support Devil’s Facial Tumor vaccine research can donate to the Tasmanian Devil Appeal.

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