Saint among devils
21 March 2010
On the second level of the 1970s concrete brutalist building just off Sydney University’s Science Road, Kathy Belov is puzzling the latest data in the fight to save the Tasmanian devil, endangered by a contagious cancer. “I’m constantly adding bits to a jigsaw puzzle,” says the affable, blonde geneticist, “and there are times when things don’t make sense.”
This was one such time. Some healthy devils caught in the wild appeared to have generated an antibody response to the fatal facial disease that has wiped out 70 per cent of the population – but despite the exciting development, Belov and her team couldn’t initially see what made these devils different.
“Now I think we’ve cracked what it is about them that may mean these animals are able to [fight] the disease,” she beams, sitting in her office, room 316, as her students come and go. “That was one of those Eureka moments; they’re happening every couple of months.”
Have genes been identified that cause or repel the tumours? Belov, 36, measures her words carefully because last month a scientific journal has accepted her team’s paper broaching this topic, and she’s bound to not discuss its contents for some months, until publication.
“You could say that we’re following a lead which looks quite promising – it looks like there are genes that are involved in resistance and susceptibility.”
Observers are confident she’s onto something. “Kathy Belov is not only a top geneticist,” says Herald science writer Deborah Smith, “she has captured the public’s imagination with her passion for saving Tasmanian devils”.
Her insights, says ABC broadcaster Robyn Williams, “could save the Australian icon”.
Yet Belov has found evidence the tumours are evolving, “so even if there are resistant devils now, that doesn’t mean we’re safe”, she cautions, “because chances are when the tumour mutates, it will affect those animals as well”.
Her team continues work on a vaccine, though vaccines against human cancers, she notes wistfully, have not proven too successful: “You can target a virus that causes cancer, but not the cancer itself.”
So Belov and her fellow travellers hope to buy time for the devil and themselves with an “insurance” plan – an audacious project with John Weigel of the Australian Reptile Park at Somersby on the NSW central coast to establish a “free range” fenced-in breeding population of healthy devils at Barrington Tops, north of Newcastle, on land donated by the (debt-plagued) plantation and timber products group Forest Enterprises Australia.
About 200 devils, some sourced from north-west Tasmania – where the population of animals appears to have immunity to devil facial tumour disease, or DFTD – would be released onto the 300-hectares at Barrington Tops for about 30 years, then their progeny released back into the Tasmanian wild.
Logistically and ecologically, there is much research still to be done: what impact would the devils’ territorial behaviour and carnivorous appetites, for instance, have on the natural balance at Barrington Tops? The devils, incidentally, lived in the wild on the Australian mainland up to 4000 years ago – until the dingo won the battle for resources and survival. Today, there are about 150 devils on the mainland, all captive in zoos.
Belov has been arranging a series of Devilrock concerts to raise funds for the project, with singer Jon English performing and organising other artists. The biggest Devilrock gig is planned for the Sydney Uni main campus in October.
Like all science, Belov’s work has built on the shoulders of others: in 2006, Tasmanian scientists Anne-Maree Pearse and Kate Swift published findings in the journal
postulating the facial cancer was contagious; that a cell was being spread when the devils bit one another during fights and was then growing in the animals.
Meanwhile in Sydney, Belov, who that year had already led work characterising the immune genes in the South American grey short-tailed opossum – the first marsupial to have its genome sequenced – and who would play a key part in the international collaboration of 100 scientists publishing the genome of the platypus – the first monotreme or egg-laying mammal to be sequenced – read the Tasmanians’ paper on the devil and immediately thought: “I know what it is!”
Belov phoned Pearse and asked: “Hey, can I work on the project?” Her hypothesis was that the devil population was showing a lack of “MHC diversity”. MHC stands for major histocompatibility complex genes; human patients and donors have their MHC genes typed prior to organ transplants to maximise compatibility because humans, coming from a much more diverse gene pool than, say, devils isolated on the Apple Isle, have developed greater MHC diversity to fight invading pathogens.
Subsequent research proved her right. Then, in 2007, along came Cedric, a devil from north-western Tasmania, whom University of Tasmania researchers injected with killed devil facial tumour disease cells – excitingly, his body mounted a strong antibody response, indicating he and perhaps his kind from that area could be genetically resistant to the disease. Essentially, his MHC genes recognised the invader.
Then, a setback: in 2008, Cedric got cancer when injected with a different strain. Thankfully, the cancer cells were successfully surgically removed when still small, says Greg Woods, an associate professor in immunology. “Cedric is well; there’s no sign of the cancer,” he says.
Belov remains hopeful, if world-weary of past human efforts in the field: “We’ve already lost the Tassie tiger, and I think it would be horrifying for us to lose another large marsupial carnivore. Australia has a terribly history of extinctions – it has the worst track record of all the countries in the world.
“In terms of sleepless nights, it is something I’m very aware of, and I don’t want it to happen on my watch.”
Science is a family affair for Kathy Belov, who was born in Sydney in 1973 and grew up in West Ryde. Her mother, Larissa Belov, a cancer immunologist who specialises in chronic myeloid leukaemia, also works at Sydney University, and has collaborated to set up a spin-off company that is selling around the world a new human cancer diagnosis technology known as antibody microarrays.
Kathy’s late father, Nick, was a mechanical engineer who had arrived in Australia at 17 speaking little English, yet managed to put himself through university. Both her parents are of Russian lineage. Nick had been born in China – his family had fled their homeland during the 1917 Russian Revolution – and Larissa had been born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany, to which her family had been sent during World War II; she had arrived in Australia aged three.
The Belovs insisted Kathy and her younger brother, Dimitry, get a good education – they put the brakes on teenage Kathy’s ambition to be a band manager – and this ethos paid dividends. Dimitry followed his father into engineering and now works at Taronga Zoo; Kathy, who found she did well in the subject without too much study, clearly had science in her DNA.
At heart, Belov, who is single, is an animal lover, with two cocker spaniels and two cats at home, including a once feral feline whom she named Kappa – after an immunoglobulin light chain, naturally. “I work with a lot of people in wildlife who see cats as the enemy, but to me they’re still animals, and I’d much prefer to see them rehabilitated.”
She believes in evolution and is “not religious at all”, which has led on occasion to arguments with her religious relatives – including her “very religious” father. “I think my Dad thought I was just a bit nutty,” she laughs.
Belov majored in human genetics for her Macquarie University undergraduate degree and thought she would end up in human research like Larissa did. But in 1997, she was persuaded by her future PhD supervisor to do some genetic typing on grey kangaroos – yet she got bored very quickly.
Then the supervisor told her about a Newcastle University researcher who believed marsupials had a primitive immune response; which made little sense because marsupials on the whole are pretty healthy. “We proved him [the researcher] to be completely wrong,” says Belov. “I got hooked then.”
While it was still early days in the field of “comparative immunogenetics” – the first map of the human genome would not be published until a couple of years later, in 2000 – Belov’s career was poised to prosper.
Indeed, she started to put together a picture that marsupials aren’t primitive at all. She also confirmed humans’ immune responses date to the time before marsupials, mammals and monotremes diverged. Since they diverged, evolution and where we live and the pathogens we’re exposed to have played a part in our immune systems’ development.
Researching marsupials and monotremes as the “evolutionary sweet spot” helps both animals and people, Belov explains. “They are different enough from humans that we can hone in on critical genes, but similar enough that we share a lot of our biological features.”
In 2004, with full licensing and ethics approval in place, University of Adelaide geneticist Frank Grützner’s team netted a platypus at the Upper Barnard River in the NSW Hunter Valley, whom they nicknamed Glennie, after Glen Rock Station there. Belov came a key player in an international project to publish the genome of this particular platypus.
The juvenile female, who was humanely euthanised while anaesthetised and then dissected for her tissues, was chosen because she wouldn’t have eggs in a burrow.
More than 100 scientists from the US, Australia, the UK, Spain, Japan and elsewhere sequenced or analysed Glennie’s genome; Belov would wake to take part in 5am international teleconferences from her bed.
The results were published in
in May 2008, sparking new clues to early mammalian evolution and a template to build understanding how the platypus – just the size of a thumbnail when it hatches after only 11 days’ incubation – creates an immune system apparently from scratch.
Such a picture is crucial to understanding the platypus, still in healthy numbers but facing habitat destruction in some areas. Now Belov and colleagues in Melbourne and Adelaide have applied to the Australian Research Council for funding to establish a Centre of Excellence in Wildlife and Human Health.
One tantalising prospect for investigation is that the platypus genome contains novel anti-microbial peptides with broad-spectrum capacity to fight a wide variety of bugs – information gleaned from Glennie et al might lead to new drugs for humans to fight, for instance, the multi drug-resistant golden staph that spreads between humans in hospitals.
Male platypi, meanwhile, can occasionally spur humans with painful venom. A Queensland war veteran whose hand was double-spurred by a male platypus described the excruciating pain as worse than a shrapnel wound, and required large doses of morphine. Yet Belov believes the venom may yield molecules to create novel drugs to fight migraine and chronic pain.
Most of her students are young women, consistent with the gender ratio across the veterinary science faculty generally; women seem keener to make a career caring for and learning from animals than men do.
The devil – and other marsupials and monotremes – appear to be in kind hands controlled by smart minds. “I think you couldn’t find more passionate people trying to make a difference,” says Belov.