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Elizabeth Murchison: Cancer in the Wilderness

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Recommended by: Jenny Graves, Australian National University

It was Elizabeth Murchison's origins in Tasmania that got her interested in the transmittable cancer that is killing Tasmanian devils. Now at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Murchison analyzes devil facial tumor disease with the hope of finding a way to stop its spread. In the case of the Tasmanian devil, the cancer is spread not from cell to cell in one animal, but from one animal to another through biting. Murchison is also studying a similar cancer in dogs, which has been around for thousands of years, and which is sexually transmitted, though not fatal. "It's one cancer — kind of difficult to get your head around it — it's one cancer which occurred first in the body of one individual dog or devil that lived a long time ago, and this cancer is still alive and spreading through the population by horizontal transfer of cancer cells," Murchison says.

Unlike human cancers, where the person's normal DNA can be compared to the tumor DNA to suss out the mutations involved, Murchison works on cancers that have arisen from individual animals that are long dead. "And so as a result it's kind of like this big puzzle. We're trying to work out how these cancers evolved without being able to compare them to the normal animal they originally came from," she says.

Eventually, Murchison says, she'd like to study cancers that affect other kinds of wildlife and domestic animals. "We can learn a lot about cancer in general and how it evolved by looking at cases that are quite different than the normal like human cancers that we usually study," she adds. "I'm hoping the field is going to embrace looking at more human cancers, complemented by looking at unusual cancers in animals."

Publication of note

Murchison was lead author on a paper published in Science in January 2010 describing the devil facial tumor disease. The study generated a diagnostic marker for the cancer and identified a set of genes relevant to its pathology and transmission.

And the Nobel goes to…

If Murchison's early morning phone call from Sweden should ever come, she hopes it will be because she saved the Tasmanian devil.

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