Allorecognition in the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), an endangered marsupial species with limited genetic diversity

Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) are on the verge of extinction due to a transmissible cancer, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD).

This tumour is an allograft that is transmitted between individuals without immune recognition of the tumour cells. The mechanism to explain this lack of immune recognition and acceptance is not well understood. It has been hypothesized that lack of genetic diversity at the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) allowed the tumour cells to grow in genetically similar hosts without evoking an immune response to alloantigens.

We conducted mixed lymphocyte reactions and skin grafts to measure functional MHC diversity in the Tasmanian devil population. The limited MHC diversity was sufficient to produce measurable mixed lymphocyte reactions.

There was a wide range of responses, from low or no reaction to relatively strong responses. The highest responses occurred when lymphocytes from devils from the east of Tasmania were mixed with lymphocytes from devils from the west of Tasmania.

All of the five successful skin allografts were rejected within 14 days after surgery, even though little or no MHC I and II mismatches were found.

Extensive T-cell infiltration characterized the immune rejection. We conclude that Tasmanian devils are capable of allogeneic rejection.

Consequently, a lack of functional allorecognition mechanisms in the devil population does not explain the transmission of a contagious cancer.

The study is from the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania, University of Tasmania, Tasmania, Australia.

Kreiss A, Cheng Y, Kimble F, et al. PLoS One 2011; 6(7):e22402.

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