[ASC-media] Could light help save the Tassie devil?

Niall Byrne niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
Tue Jul 31 03:27:58 CEST 2007

Minute changes in hair may give early warning of cancer
Tuesday 31 July 2007
Australia's new synchrotron could contribute to the fight against the
facial tumour disease that threatens the future of the Tasmanian devil,
according to Dr Jeff Church from CSIRO Textile and Fibre Technology in

He wants to see if the disease causes any body-wide biochemical changes
in the devils. If so, it could be detected in their hair before the
disease becomes apparent.

If Church finds a consistent change, it could open the way to a test
which will allow detection of the cancer before the tumours become
evident. And that would make any quarantine strategy easier to
establish, and much more efficient.

The idea is based on Australian research using synchrotron light to
analyse changes in hair composition and structure due to disease. The
suggestion is that similar changes could occur in the devils when the
facial tumour disease is triggered. But the theory needs to be fully
tested. "It might work or it might be zero," says Church, a principal
research scientist. 

The synchrotron's infra-red beamline combined with a microscope and
spectrometer-which detects how different materials absorb and reflect
the radiation-can be used to determine if the composition of hair
differs between diseased animals and healthy ones.

The whole scheme wouldn't even be possible without the $220-million
Australian Synchrotron, to be launched officially on Tuesday 31 July at
10.30 am. "The infra-red spectrum tells us about protein and fat
structure and whether it's changing," Church says. But the technology to
do such work using a synchrotron is comparatively new, and the
Australian facility is one of relatively few around the world where it
is available.

If a diagnostic test for the facial tumour disease using the synchrotron
does look possible, only having a machine nearby would make it viable.
Having to queue up for time on a synchrotron at least nine hours flying
time from Tasmania- more likely further-would make the whole thing very
difficult, Church says, particularly because you would need to transport
biological samples around the world, between different countries. And
that raises a whole lot of biosecurity issues.

The Australian Synchrotron opens today in Melbourne: a $220 million
national scientific instrument delivered on budget, and on time. Church
is one of hundreds of scientists who will use the synchrotron over the
next year. 

For further information, contact Jeff Church (03) 5246 4000,
jeff.church at csiro.au


Images available.

Media contacts 

*         Australian Synchrotron, Stefanie Pearce,  +61 3 9655 6676,
stefanie.pearce at iird.vic.gov.au <mailto:stefanie.pearce at iird.vic.gov.au>

*         Science in Public: Niall Byrne, +61 (417) 131 977,
niall at scienceinpublic.com.au
<blocked::mailto:niall at scienceinpublic.com.au>  

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