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Keywords:

  • canine transmissible venereal tumour;
  • contagious cancer;
  • MHC;
  • Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease

Abstract

Cancer is generally defined as uncontrollable growth of cells caused by genetic aberrations and/or environmental factors. Yet contagious cancers also occur. The recent emergence of a contagious cancer in Tasmanian devils has reignited interest in transmissible cancers. Two naturally occurring transmissible cancers are known: devil facial tumour disease and canine transmissible venereal tumour. Both cancers evolved once and have then been transmitted from one individual to another as clonal cell lines. The dog cancer is ancient; having evolved more than 6,000 years ago, while the devil disease was first seen in 1996. In this review I will compare and contrast the two diseases focusing on the life histories of the clonal cell lines, their evolutionary trajectories and the mechanisms by which they have achieved immune tolerance. A greater understanding of these contagious cancers will provide unique insights into the role of the immune system in shaping tumour evolution and may uncover novel approaches for treating human cancer.