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Tassie devil may help human cancer research -

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Tassie devil may help human cancer research

The World Today - Thursday, 18 December , 2008 12:46:00

Reporter: Felicity Ogilvie

ELEANOR HALL: Scientists meeting in Hobart this week say that understanding the genetic makeup of a
contagious cancer that's killing Tasmanian Devils should help them to better diagnose and treat
human cancer.

The head of genetic research at the Children's Cancer Institute of Australia, Dr Vanessa Hayes, is
one of a dozen geneticists from around the country meeting to share their work.

Dr Hayes spoke to our Hobart reporter, Felicity Ogilvie, about her research.

VANESSA HAYES: I'm currently working with an International team and we are sequencing the entire
DNA sequence of the Tasmanian Devil and its tumour.

FELICITY OGILVIE: Why are you doing that?

VANESSA HAYES: Well, we need to, first of all we need to know what the DNA sequence is. Once we
know the DNA sequence we can identify what we call genetic markers. We can then use these markers
to selectively breed the animals.

The reason why these animals cannot fight the cancer is because it hasn't got enough genetic
diversity. So we need to create as much diversity as we can within the insurance population as well
as the remaining population in Tasmania.

FELICITY OGILVIE: And why are you studying the genetics of the tumour?

VANESSA HAYES: Well, we need to understand this tumour. This is a very, very aggressive tumour. It
is an infectious tumour and it is very, very fast growing. What we can learn about the genetics of
this cancer and don't forget that genetics plays a major part in all cancer development not just
this particular cancer - the genetic mechanisms involved in this cancer we can translate directly
back to human cancers.

FELICITY OGILVIE: What do you think you'll learn about how to treat cancer in humans from working
out the genetics of this highly unusual cancer in the devils?

VANESSA HAYES: We will actually be able to identify genes that are important in cancer development.
We can then relate this information exactly back to human cancers.

Ultimately we will hopefully find genes that we can use as targets for cancer therapy as well.

FELICITY OGILVIE: Does that mean that you might find that humans have certain genes that make some
people and not others susceptible to cancer?

VANESSA HAYES: Oh, absolutely. That is what I do. That is the research that I am doing.

In human research I do look at what makes people more resistant or more prone to getting cancer
than others and we need to understand that because cancer is a very complex disease and we know
that it is not only environment that plays a part in cancer.

There are certain cancers that are purely environmentally influenced but most cancers are a mixture
of environment and genetics.

FELICITY OGILVIE: Are you up to a stage in human cancer at the moment where you can look at
someone's DNA and think OK, that person will get a certain type of cancer?

VANESSA HAYES: Oh, it depends on the cancer type. There are certain cancers where we have very good

For example in breast cancer we can pretty accurately diagnose about 25 per cent of individuals
with familial breast cancer. To have in either the breast cancer corpia (phonetic) co1 or co2
variance in their DNA. With other cancers it is more difficult, for example prostate cancer, it is
more complex than that.

But we are progressing very fast in human cancers and what really is allowing us to do this both in
the Tassie devil and in human research is technology and technology advancement has just exploded
in the last four years so we can now look at entire DNA sequences in one shot.

FELICITY OGILVIE: This is a contagious cancer that actually the tumour is mutating. Could that ever
happen to human cancer? Could it become contagious?

VANESSA HAYES: Why not? I think it is very naive to think that it would not ever happen in humans
or hasn't happened before in the past. I mean prime examples; look how long it took us to discover
HIV. It had been around for years before it was actually discovered. In fact, been around since
1920 before it was discovered in 1980s.

So it is not to say there hasn't been a cancer like that out there before and hence another reason
why we need to understand infectious cancers.

ELEANOR HALL: That is Dr Vanessa Hayes from the Children's Cancer Institute speaking to Felicity
Ogilvie in Hobart.