Feds Devote $2.25 Million to Study Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease

July 30, 2013 - 9:10 AM
tasmanian devil

A Tasmanian devil is pictured with a cancerous growth on its face. (AP/Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment, HO)

(CNSNews.com) – The National Science Foundation will spend $2.25 million to study the emergence, transmission and evolution of facial tumor disease in Tasmanian devils.

“Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are considered a grand challenge in the environmental sciences for the 21st century because of their effects on human, wildlife and agricultural health,” the grant description stated. “Infectious diseases are now listed as the sixth leading cause of species extinctions, and an EID has caused the endangerment of the iconic Tasmanian devil.

“Across Tasmania, devil populations are being decimated by an infectious cancer called Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease,” the announcement stated. “Although only a few infectious cancers are documented, this cancer shares properties with human cancers.

“This study will investigate how transmission is related to heterogeneity in contacts and genomic variation in host and/and or tumor within populations,” the announcement stated. “Genetic studies may reveal underlying causes of devil facial tumor longevity, perhaps providing information on cancer recurrence in humans.”

The three-year funding for the grant is $1.675 million and was announced on July 10. The total for the four-year grant is $2.25 million, according to Lily Whiteman, senior public affairs officer with NSF.

Washington State University is the sponsor for the grant, which is generated by NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology.

When CNSNews.com asked about the value of the grant, given cuts in the federal budget or sequestration, Whiteman said the status of the animal and the possibility that the findings from the project could extend to research on human diseases is key.

“It is important to note that this study involves an endangered species,” Whiteman said via email. “In addition, the study has important potential implications for studying infectious diseases in humans.”

Whiteman also provided CNSNews.com with a statement via email defending the process of awarding grants at NSF.

“The National Science Foundation is renowned for its gold-standard approach to merit review of each of the more than 40,000 proposals it receives each year,” the statement said. “NSF conducts its merit review by convening a panel of leading experts from around the country who evaluate the science, the strength of the research team, the quality of the educational component, and other elements of the proposal according to the key criteria of intellectual merit and broader impacts.

“The discoveries and innovations that have resulted from NSF-funded research have advanced the frontiers of science and engineering, improved Americans’ lives, and provided the foundations for countless new industries and jobs,” the statement said.