13:04
TEDGlobal 2011

Elizabeth Murchison: Fighting a contagious cancer

Filmed:

What is killing the Tasmanian devil? A virulent cancer is infecting them by the thousands -- and unlike most cancers, it's contagious. Researcher Elizabeth Murchison tells us how she's fighting to save the Taz, and what she's learning about all cancers from this unusual strain. Contains disturbing images of facial cancer.

- Cancer researcher
Elizabeth Murchison studies a mysterious (and contagious) cancer that threatens to wipe out Tasmanian devils. Full bio

Everyone's familiar with cancer,
00:15
but we don't normally think of cancer
00:19
as being a contagious disease.
00:21
The Tasmanian devil has shown us
00:25
that, not only can cancer be a contagious disease,
00:27
but it can also threaten
00:30
an entire species with extinction.
00:32
So first of all, what is a Tasmanian devil?
00:36
Many of you might be familiar with Taz, the cartoon character,
00:40
the one that spins around and around and around.
00:43
But not many people know
00:45
that there actually is a real animal called the Tasmanian devil,
00:47
and it's the world's largest carnivorous marsupial.
00:50
A marsupial is a mammal with a pouch
00:54
like a kangaroo.
00:56
The Tasmanian devil got its name
00:58
from the terrifying nocturnal scream that it makes.
01:00
(Screaming)
01:04
(Laughter)
01:15
The Tasmanian devil is predominantly a scavenger,
01:17
and it uses its powerful jaws
01:20
and its sharp teeth
01:22
to chomp on the bones of rotting dead animals.
01:24
[The] Tasmanian devil is found only on the island of Tasmania,
01:27
which is that small island
01:30
just to the south of the mainland of Australia.
01:32
And despite their ferocious appearance,
01:34
Tasmanian devils are actually
01:38
quite adorable little animals.
01:40
In fact, growing up in Tasmania,
01:43
it always was incredibly exciting
01:45
when we got a chance to see
01:47
a Tasmanian devil in the wild.
01:49
But the Tasmanian devil population
01:51
has been undergoing a really extremely fast decline.
01:53
And in fact, there's concern
01:57
that the species could go extinct in the wild
01:59
within 20 to 30 years.
02:02
And the reason for that
02:05
is the emergence of a new disease,
02:07
a contagious cancer.
02:09
The story begins in 1996
02:13
when a wildlife photographer took this photograph here
02:15
of a Tasmanian devil
02:18
with a large tumor on its face.
02:20
At the time, this was thought to be a one-off.
02:22
Animals, just like humans,
02:25
sometimes get strange tumors.
02:27
However, we now believe
02:30
that this is the first sighting of a new disease,
02:32
which is now an epidemic spreading through Tasmania.
02:35
The disease was first sighted
02:39
in the northeast of Tasmania in 1996
02:41
and has spread across Tasmania like a huge wave.
02:44
Now there's only a small part of the population,
02:47
which remains unaffected.
02:50
This disease appears first as tumors,
02:52
usually on the face or inside the mouth
02:55
of affected Tasmanian devils.
02:57
These tumors inevitably grow into larger tumors,
02:59
such as these ones here.
03:02
And the next image I'm going to show
03:04
is quite gruesome.
03:06
But inevitably, these tumors progress
03:08
towards being enormous, ulcerating tumors like this one here.
03:10
This one in particular sticks in my mind,
03:16
because this is the first case of this disease
03:18
that I saw myself.
03:20
And I remember the horror of seeing this little female devil
03:22
with this huge ulcerating, foul-smelling tumor
03:25
inside her mouth
03:27
that had actually cracked off her entire lower jaw.
03:29
She hadn't eaten for days.
03:33
Her guts were swimming with parasitic worms.
03:36
Her body was riddled with secondary tumors.
03:38
And yet, she was feeding three little baby Tasmanian devils
03:41
in her pouch.
03:44
Of course, they died along with the mother.
03:47
They were too young to survive without their mother.
03:50
In fact, in the area where she comes from,
03:53
more than 90 percent of the Tasmanian devil population
03:56
has already died of this disease.
03:59
Scientists around the world
04:02
were intrigued by this cancer,
04:04
this infectious cancer,
04:06
that was spreading through the Tasmanian devil population.
04:08
And our minds immediately turned to cervical cancer in women,
04:11
which is spread by a virus,
04:14
and to the AIDS epidemic,
04:16
which is associated with a number of different types of cancer.
04:18
All the evidence suggested that this devil cancer
04:22
was spread by a virus.
04:25
However, we now know -- and I'll tell you right now --
04:28
that we know that this cancer is not spread by a virus.
04:31
In fact, the infectious agent of disease in this cancer
04:34
is something altogether more sinister,
04:38
and something that we hadn't really thought of before.
04:40
But in order for me to explain what that is,
04:43
I need to spend just a couple of minutes
04:46
talking more about cancer itself.
04:48
Cancer is a disease
04:51
that affects millions of people around the world every year.
04:53
One in three people in this room
04:56
will develop cancer at some stage in their lives.
04:58
I myself had a tumor removed from my large intestine
05:01
when I was only 14.
05:03
Cancer occurs
05:06
when a single cell in your body
05:08
acquires a set of random mutations in important genes
05:10
that cause that cell to start to produce
05:13
more and more and more copies of itself.
05:16
Paradoxically, once established,
05:20
natural selection actually favors
05:23
the continued growth of cancer.
05:25
Natural selection is survival of the fittest.
05:27
And when you have a population of fast-dividing cancer cells,
05:30
if one of them acquires new mutations,
05:33
which allow them to grow more quickly,
05:35
acquire nutrients more successfully,
05:37
invade the body,
05:39
they'll be selected for by evolution.
05:41
That's why cancer is such a difficult disease to treat.
05:44
It evolves.
05:48
Throw a drug at it,
05:50
and resistant cells will grow back.
05:52
An amazing fact is that,
05:55
given the right environment and the right nutrients,
05:57
a cancer cell has the potential
06:00
to go on growing forever.
06:02
However cancer is constrained
06:05
by living inside our bodies,
06:07
and its continued growth,
06:09
its spreading through our bodies
06:11
and eating away at our tissues,
06:13
leads to the death of the cancer patient
06:15
and also to the death of the cancer itself.
06:18
So cancer could be thought of
06:22
as a strange, short-lived, self-destructive life form --
06:24
an evolutionary dead end.
06:29
But that is where the Tasmanian devil cancer
06:33
has acquired an absolutely amazing
06:35
evolutionary adaptation.
06:38
And the answer came from studying
06:41
the Tasmanian devil cancer's DNA.
06:43
This was work from many people,
06:45
but I'm going to explain it through a confirmatory experiment
06:47
that I did a few years ago.
06:49
The next slide is going to be gruesome.
06:51
This is Jonas.
06:54
He's a Tasmanian devil that we found
06:56
with a large tumor on his face.
06:59
And being a geneticist,
07:01
I'm always interested to look at DNA and mutations.
07:03
So I took this opportunity
07:06
to collect some samples from Jonas' tumor
07:08
and also some samples from other parts of his body.
07:10
I took these back to the lab.
07:13
I extracted DNA from them.
07:15
And when I looked at the sequence of the DNA,
07:17
and compared the sequence of Jonas' tumor
07:20
to that of the rest of his body,
07:23
I discovered that they had a completely different genetic profile.
07:25
In fact, Jonas and his tumor
07:30
were as different from each other
07:32
as you and the person sitting next to you.
07:35
What this told us was that Jonas' tumor
07:38
did not arise from cells of his own body.
07:41
In fact, more genetic profiling
07:44
told us that this tumor in Jonas
07:47
actually probably first arose
07:49
from the cells of a female Tasmanian devil --
07:51
and Jonas was clearly a male.
07:53
So how come
07:55
a tumor that arose from the cells of another individual
07:57
is growing on Jonas' face?
08:00
Well the next breakthrough
08:03
came from studying hundreds of Tasmanian devil cancers
08:05
from all around Tasmania.
08:08
We found that all of these cancers
08:10
shared the same DNA.
08:12
Think about that for a minute.
08:14
That means that all of these cancers
08:16
actually are the same cancer
08:18
that arose once from one individual devil,
08:20
that have broken free of that first devil's body
08:23
and spread through the entire Tasmanian devil population.
08:26
But how can a cancer spread in a population?
08:30
Well the final piece of the puzzle came
08:33
when we remember how devils behave when they meet each other in the wild.
08:35
They tend to bite each other,
08:38
often quite ferociously and usually on the face.
08:40
We think that cancer cells
08:43
actually come off the tumor, get into the saliva.
08:46
When the devil bites another devil,
08:49
it actually physically implants living cancer cells into the next devil,
08:51
so the tumor continues to grow.
08:54
So this Tasmanian devil cancer
08:56
is perhaps the ultimate cancer.
08:58
It's not constrained by living within the body that gave rise to it.
09:00
It spreads through the population,
09:03
has mutations that allow it to evade the immune system,
09:05
and it's the only cancer that we know of
09:08
that's threatening an entire species with extinction.
09:10
But if this can happen in Tasmanian devils,
09:14
why hasn't it happened in other animals
09:17
or even humans?
09:19
Well the answer is, it has.
09:21
This is Kimbo.
09:25
He's a dog that belongs to a family in Mombasa in Kenya.
09:27
Last year, his owner noticed some blood
09:31
trickling from his genital region.
09:34
She took him to the vet
09:37
and the vet discovered something quite disgusting.
09:39
And if you're squeamish, please look away now.
09:42
He discovered this,
09:45
a huge bleeding tumor
09:47
at the base of Kimbo's penis.
09:49
The vet diagnosed this as transmissible venereal tumor,
09:53
a sexually transmitted cancer
09:56
that affects dogs.
09:59
And just as the Tasmanian devil cancer is contagious
10:01
through the spread of living cancer cells,
10:04
so is this dog cancer.
10:06
But this dog cancer is quite remarkable,
10:08
because it spread all around the world.
10:10
And in fact, these same cells
10:12
that are affecting Kimbo here
10:14
are also found affecting dogs
10:17
in New York City,
10:19
in mountain villages in the Himalayas
10:21
and in Outback Australia.
10:23
We also believe this cancer might be very old.
10:26
In fact, genetic profiling tells
10:28
that it may be tens of thousands of years old,
10:30
which means that this cancer
10:33
may have first arisen
10:35
from the cells of a wolf
10:37
that lived alongside the Neanderthals.
10:39
This cancer is remarkable.
10:42
It's the oldest mammalian-derived life form that we know of.
10:44
It's a living relic
10:48
of the distant past.
10:50
So we've seen that this can happen in animals.
10:54
Could cancers be contagious between people?
10:56
Well this is a question
11:01
which fascinated Chester Southam,
11:03
a cancer doctor in the 1950s.
11:05
Ad he decided to put this to the test
11:08
by actually deliberately inoculating people
11:11
with cancer from somebody else.
11:14
And this is a photograph of Dr. Southam in 1957
11:17
injecting cancer into a volunteer,
11:21
who in this case was an inmate
11:24
in Ohio State Penitentiary.
11:26
Most of the people that Dr. Southam injected
11:30
did not go on to develop cancer
11:32
from the injected cells.
11:34
But a small number of them did,
11:36
and they were mostly people who were otherwise ill --
11:38
whose immune systems were probably compromised.
11:41
What this tells us,
11:46
ethical issues aside,
11:48
is that ...
11:50
(Laughter)
11:52
it's probably extremely rare
11:54
for cancers to be transferred between people.
11:57
However, under some circumstances,
12:01
it can happen.
12:03
And I think that this is something
12:06
that oncologists and epidemiologists
12:08
should be aware of in the future.
12:10
So just finally,
12:13
cancer is an inevitable outcome
12:15
of the ability of our cells
12:17
to divide
12:19
and to adapt to their environments.
12:21
But that does not mean that we should give up hope
12:24
in the fight against cancer.
12:27
In fact, I believe, given more knowledge
12:29
of the complex evolutionary processes that drive cancer's growth,
12:31
we can defeat cancer.
12:34
My personal aim
12:37
is to defeat the Tasmanian devil cancer.
12:39
Let's prevent the Tasmanian devil
12:43
from being the first animal
12:45
to go extinct from cancer.
12:47
Thank you.
12:49
(Applause)
12:51

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About the Speaker:

Elizabeth Murchison - Cancer researcher
Elizabeth Murchison studies a mysterious (and contagious) cancer that threatens to wipe out Tasmanian devils.

Why you should listen

Elizabeth Murchison grew up in Tasmania, the island home of the small, aggressive marsupial known as the Tasmanian devil. In the mid-'90s, the devils were beset with a terrible new disease -- a contagious facial cancer, spread by biting, that killed the animals just as they reached breeding age. By 2008, half the devil population of Australia had contracted the cancer and died. And as Murchison says: "I didn’t want to sit back and let the devils disappear.”

Leading an international team at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, she worked to understand why this cancer was so virulent -- with the goal of saving the Taz, as it is called, but also of understanding how a contagious cancer works. Analyzing gene and microRNA activity in 25 different facial tumors and in healthy tissue, the team found that cancers from animals across Tasmania were identical, and that the cancer stems from Schwann cells, which normally insulate nerve fibers.

Now a Research Fellow in Medical Sciences at King's College, Cambridge, Murchison is using high-throughput DNA sequencing technologies to investigate the genetics and evolution of this disease, one of only three known cancers that spread contagiously.

She says: "This is why cancer is such a difficult disease to treat: It evolves."

More profile about the speaker
Elizabeth Murchison | Speaker | TED.com