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New Hope for Threatened 'Devil' Marsupials in Australia


Researchers in Australia say a Tasmanian devil called Cedric could hold the key to the survival of the embattled species. The world's largest marsupial carnivore is facing extinction because of a mystery facial cancer. Cedric is rare - he appears to be naturally resistant to the contagious tumors which have killed half the devil population in the southern Australian state. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Cedric is the first Tasmanian devil to have shown any immunity from the disfiguring disease that is ravaging the population.

Infected animals become so consumed by the cancer they can no longer eat or see, and eventually die of starvation.

Cedric was captured in western Tasmania last year, along with his half-brother Clinky.

Both were injected by scientists with dead tumors. Clinky produced no antibodies, but Cedric did and appears to have built-in defenses against the mystery illness that first appeared in the mid-1990s.

The experiments have now moved up a gear.

Researcher Alex Kriess says the pair has had live cancer cells inserted into their faces.

"They haven't developed a tumor so far. We think that Cedric, that's the devil that has produced an immunity response, we hope that he won't produce any tumor. Clinky hasn't produced either and we haven't detected any immunity response," said Kriess. "What we think is happening, we injected very few cells so it might take a while until they develop anything that we can see."

Cedric's apparent resistant to the disease is considered a significant breakthrough.

The tumors are decimating devil numbers on Tasmania's east coast. Cedric is from a genetically different population on the other side of the island.

Scientists hope that marsupials that share his genetic pattern could also be immune to the cancer or capable of responding to a vaccine.

If real progress is not made soon, experts worry that the Tasmanian devil could be extinct within 20 years.

The Tasmanian devil was given its name by early European settlers. Its raucous screeches, dark fur and bad temper led explorers to call it the devil. Although only the size of a small dog, it can sound and look incredibly fierce. They pose a minimal risk to people.

Devils were found across the Australian continent and are thought to have become extinct on the mainland about 600 years ago. Today, these cantankerous creatures are found only in Tasmania.