Tumours in sea turtles share similar genetic vulnerabilities with human cancers, according to a paper published this week in Communications Biology. These findings could lead to the use of human cancer treatments for treating tumours in sea turtles.
Sea turtle populations are currently under threat of extinction, and fibropapillomatosis - a potentially fatal virulent tumour - is undermining conservation efforts. Human-related activities like habitat degradation are contributing to the spread of this oncogenic virus, as well as other emerging infectious diseases in wildlife. Practically nothing is known about the dynamics between the virus and the sea turtle host, including which genes are responsible for driving tumour development.
David Duffy and colleagues studied the molecular signalling events responsible for fibropapilloma tumour growth in sea turtles by applying the same precision medicine techniques currently used for human cancers. They looked at changes in gene expression that occur during tumour development and found that tumours are driven by altered expression of host genes, and are not affected by genes from the virus.
The authors suggest that these driver genes could therefore be targeted by the same anti-tumour therapies used to treat human cancers. The findings also demonstrate the power of using precision medicine approaches to tackle rare and understudied wildlife diseases.