Transmissible Cancers: Insights from Animal Cases and Clues for Human Metastasis

Jeya Chelliah B.Vsc Ph.D

Transmissible cancers are an intriguing and unusual facet of nature, predominantly found in certain animal species but not in humans. This blog post explores the species most affected by transmissible cancers, how these cases differ from human cancers, and the implications these differences have for understanding human cancer metastasis.

Which Species Are Affected?

Transmissible cancers are rare, with known cases in only a few species:

  • Tasmanian Devils: Perhaps the most well-known example is the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), a fatal condition that spreads through biting.
  • Dogs: Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor (CTVT) spreads among dogs through sexual contact, and is one of the oldest known transmissible cancers.
  • Bivalves: Marine bivalves, such as clams and mussels, can suffer from disseminated neoplasia, a leukemia-like cancer that spreads through water.
  • Soft-Shell Clams: These clams have been observed with a transmissible leukemia that affects multiple individuals in populations.

Differences in Cancer Presence

Transmissible cancers in these species differ from human cancers in several key ways:

  1. Transmission Method: In the affected species, cancer cells themselves are the infectious agents that transfer directly between individuals, unlike human cancers, which are not contagious.
  2. Immune System Interaction: These cancers often exploit a compromised or species-specific immune system trait that allows the cancer cells to avoid immune detection, a feature not typically seen in human cancers.
  3. Genetic Stability: Transmissible cancers in animals tend to stabilize genetically over time, allowing them to survive across different hosts. Human cancers, however, are characterized by genetic instability within the same individual.

Why Don’t Humans Transmit Cancer?

Humans do not naturally transmit cancers for several reasons:

  • Robust Immune Response: The human immune system is highly adept at recognizing and destroying aberrant cells, including those from other individuals, which prevents the establishment of transferred cancerous cells.
  • Lack of Viable Transmission Routes: Human behaviors and biological systems do not provide a pathway for the direct cell-to-cell transfer seen in transmissible cancers in animals.
  • Genetic Diversity: The genetic diversity among humans plays a role in the immune system’s ability to recognize and attack foreign cells, including cancer cells from another person.

Lessons for Understanding Human Cancer Metastasis

Studying transmissible cancers in animals offers unique insights into the mechanisms of cancer metastasis in humans. Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Cellular Escape Mechanisms: Understanding how animal cancer cells evade the immune system can provide clues on the molecular disguises that human cancer cells might use to metastasize within the same body.
  • Invasive Potential: Observations of how animal cancer cells colonize new hosts can lead to better understanding of the steps human cancer cells take to establish metastases in new tissues.
  • Treatment Strategies: Research into how animal cancers adapt to survive in multiple hosts over time might inspire new approaches to making human cancers more manageable or even curable by stabilizing their genetic changes.


Transmissible cancers in animals are a rare but rich source of knowledge for cancer biology. They offer a window into how cancer cells interact with immune systems and adapt to new environments—insights that could be crucial in developing new strategies to combat human cancer metastasis. By studying these unique diseases, researchers continue to uncover vital clues that could eventually lead to breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of cancer in humans.

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