Some human cancers use the same hiding trick.

Scientists have uncovered how the face-eating cancer threatening to wipe out the iconic Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) evades detection by the immune system.

The groundbreaking research, led by Marian Burr from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, has also found some human cancers use the same hiding trick. But the team has discovered how to flush them out.

It all revolves around a marker the body uses to tag undesirable cells as fodder for the immune system.

When a cell gets infected with, say, a virus, proteins on its surface called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) sound the alarm. That cues an influx of angry immune cells to subdue the foreign invader.

MHC on the surface of cancer cells also flags them as the enemy. But some cancers, including “small cell” cancer of the lung, are adept at hiding MHC from the immune system.

This nifty vanishing act helps the cancer grow and wreak havoc. It also explains why these cancers can shrug off the salvos of immunotherapy, a treatment that harnesses the body’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells. With the hostile MHC signal hidden, immune cells simply can’t locate the target.

That defence, however, may not be available for much longer – the researchers have found out how the cancer cells do it.

Read the full story in Cosmos magazine here