The differentiation state of the Schwann cell progenitor drives phenotypic variation between two contagious cancers


Contagious cancers are a rare pathogenic phenomenon in which cancer cells gain the ability to spread between genetically distinct hosts. Nine examples have been identified across marine bivalves, dogs and Tasmanian devils, but the Tasmanian devil is the only mammalian species known to have given rise to two distinct lineages of contagious cancer, termed Devil Facial Tumour 1 (DFT1) and 2 (DFT2). Remarkably, DFT1 and DFT2 arose independently from the same cell type, a Schwann cell, and while their ultra-structural features are highly similar they exhibit variation in their mutational signatures and infection dynamics. As such, DFT1 and DFT2 provide a unique framework for investigating how a common progenitor cell can give rise to distinct contagious cancers. Using a proteomics approach, we show that DFT1 and DFT2 are derived from Schwann cells in different differentiation states, with DFT2 carrying a molecular signature of a less well differentiated Schwann cell. Under inflammatory signals DFT1 and DFT2 have different gene expression profiles, most notably involving Schwann cell markers of differentiation, reflecting the influence of their distinct origins. Further, DFT2 cells express immune cell markers typically expressed during nerve repair, consistent with an ability to manipulate their extracellular environment, facilitating the cell’s ability to transmit between individuals. The emergence of two contagious cancers in the Tasmanian devil suggests that the inherent plasticity of Schwann cells confers a vulnerability to the formation of contagious cancers.

PLoS Pathogens