People's Choice Awards
Kathy fights the devil’s tumours
She calls herself a ‘dorky natural blonde', but geneticist Dr Kathy Belov is the world's superhero when it comes to fight a hideous contagious cancer that could destroy Australia's wild Tasmanian devils.
"It sounds dorky - but research really is a hobby and a passion of mine," Kathy said.
And it's just as well, because within 25 years, all Tasmanian devils in the wild may die if we don't come up with a way to stop the spread of the contagious cancer, Devil Facial Tumour Disease. Once there were 150,000 devils roaming the island, now there are now less than 50,000.
Kathy and her team of researchers are by far our best hope at saving these marsupials. She worked out that the devils are affected by this cancer because they are essentially clones, sharing the same genes. What's more, she found out that the tumour has similar genes to the devil, which means its immune systems doesn't ‘see' the cancer cells invading and does not attack them.
"One of the main reasons the devils are so likely to get this disease is that their numbers have dropped to very low levels in the past and they have lost their genetic diversity," Kathy said.
"Devils have been through at least three population crashes which were followed by inbreeding - where they have to breed but are quite closely related. So you can end up with more devils, but they all come from a very small gene pool."
Kathy's research showed that the devil's lack of genetic diversity meant that important immune genes that help the body fight infectious disease, called Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) genes, also lacked diversity.
Recently, she and her team found some devils in northwestern Tasmania with different MHC genes and put them in a captive breeding program to increase the genetic diversity of captive animals. She is also trying to find out whether some of these animals with different MHC genes can fight the tumour and improve their chances of survival.
"Once genetic diversity is gone, species are not able to respond to disease, and epidemics, such as the one we are seeing in the devil, can take over.
"By carefully selecting the animals we bring in and breed in captivity, we can keep genetic diversity for future release into the wild. If we succeed, this could change how the world conserves threatened species, especially ones that are inbred and live on islands."
Other species that could benefit from Kathy's knowledge are the much loved koalas living on Kangaroo and French Islands and platypuses on King Island.
Science is not just work, for Kathy, it's a joy.
"Science is lots of fun. Many people think of science as being quite isolating - but the best thing about my job is the people. I work with the most inspiring people! My research students are superstars. They work hard, are passionate and so enthusiastic. They make coming into work every day lots of fun."
Kathy entered the UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research.
Dr Katherine Belov
University of Sydney, NSW