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Photo: Ismael Aguirre Maclennan

A contagious face cancer has killed off a majority of an absolutely unique animal, the legendary Tasmanian devil.

The Devil Facial Tumor Disease has wiped out 80 percent of the marsupials over the last two decades, and there is no cure or vaccine.

A team at La Trobe University in Australia has developed big plans to derive induced pluripotent stem cells from the devils, which could help turn the tide that has endangered the remaining population of the animals.

The team, lacking funding, has turned to crowdfunding to continue the work, already underway for three years.

The campaign is called “See No Devil, Hear No Devil” – and its goal is to benefit both the ferocious marsupials and humans alike.

“The derivation of iPS cells from the Tasmanian Devil is just the first step in a long line of potential applications,” Ismael Aguirre Maclennan, a doctoral student behind the work, told Laboratory Equipment. “Ultimately, all these goals will increase our understanding of transmissible cancers and potentially uncover unknown mechanisms of cancer transmission that could be applicable to humans.”

The stem cells are made by collecting a tiny fragment of the skin through an ear punch. The skin cells are then grown in the laboratory and coaxed into an embryonic-like state by an introduction of a specific set of genes.

Multiple objectives are identified from the team, from applications that would save the devils (currently endangered), to applications human medicine.

The team has so far been the first to generate stem cell lines from any marsupials, they said.

The devils’ iPS cells could be used to make gametes that would bring the species back from extinction, Aguirre Maclennan explains. The cells could also be genetically edited through CRISPR to provide resistance to the tumors. Additionally, the creation of the cancer cells could provide an in-depth look, allowing scientists to crack its genetic and pathological code.

Proposed in the $15,000 (Australian) campaign is a series of trips to collect samples from healthy Tasmanian devils in the wild and at a sanctuary in Melbourne. The price tag included buying an Engel portable fridge to ensure integrity of the samples, and a laptop and software to helm the campaign in the field. But some 67 percent of the costs would be for laboratory supplies needed to culture the cells and cryogenically preserve them, Aguirre Maclennan explained.

Exceeding the goal could mean working toward production of a stem cell vaccine against the deadly face cancer, according to the team.

“We have special interest in using these marsupial stem cells to help save the highly endangered Tasmanian devil from possible extinction… but we also seek to exploit the power of marsupial stem cells in biomedical research,” said Aguirre Maclennan. “We cannot, however, continue with our work due to the lack of funding and therefore this exciting progress may need to be halted permanently.

“If you want to fight cancer while saving an endangered species, we wholeheartedly welcome your support,” he added.

The campaign has so far raised about 10 percent of its goal through nine backers. But it continues through the weekend.

Amid tighter competition for funds, more and more laboratories and academic programs have turned to crowdfunding.

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