2012 Award Winner Dr. Elizabeth Murchison

Appointment at time of winning the Award
Research Fellow in Cancer Genetics and Genomics at Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom 

Elizabeth Murchison received the Eppendorf Award 2012 for her discoveries concerning a deadly cancer that is spreading among the endemic population of Tasmanian devils in Tasmania and threatening the survival of the species.

Origins and Evolution of Transmissible Cancers

Each individual cancer is a clonal cell lineage that emerges through an evolutionary process when a single cell of the body acquires somatic mutations that drive proliferation and survival. As it develops, cancer can spread through the body to invade distant tissues. However, it does not normally spread or survive outside of the body. Clonally transmissible cancers are clonal cell lineages that survive beyond the deaths of their hosts by acquiring adaptations for transmission between hosts. Rare examples of cancer transmission between humans have been reported due to transfer of cancer cells in utero, by surgical injury, by experimental inoculation and by inadvertent transplantation of cancer cells with donated organs. However, there are only two known naturally occurring clonally transmissible cancers that have spread between multiple hosts and these are the transmissible venereal tumour of dogs and the facial tumour of Tasmanian devils. These two cancers are specialised parasitic clonal cell lineages that spread between individuals through physical contact and have survived long after the deaths of the animals from which they originally emerged.

The goal of my research is to understand how cancers can become transmissible and survive in multiple hosts. By studying the genetics and evolution of the canine and Tasmanian devil transmissible cancers I hope to understand the changes that allow cancers to survive long-term and to evade the immune systems of their hosts.