Mammalian Genome

, Volume 22, Issue 1–2, pp 83–90 | Cite as

The role of the Major Histocompatibility Complex in the spread of contagious cancers

  • Katherine BelovEmail author


Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) genes play a key role in immune response to infectious diseases, immunosurveillance, and self/nonself recognition. Matching MHC alleles is critical for organ transplantation, while changes in the MHC profile of tumour cells allow effective evasion of the immune response. Two unique cancers have exploited these features to become transmissible. In this review I discuss the functional role of MHC molecules in the emergence and evolution of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) and Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumour (CTVT). High levels of genetic diversity at MHC genes play a critical role in protecting populations of vertebrate species from contagious cancer. However, species that have undergone genetic bottlenecks and have lost diversity at MHC genes are at risk of transmissible tumours. Moreover, evolution and selection for tumour variants capable of evading the immune response allow contagious cancers to cross MHC barriers. Transmissible cancers are rare but they can provide unique insights into the genetics and immunology of tumours and organ transplants.


Major Histocompatibility Complex Major Histocompatibility Complex Class Major Histocompatibility Complex Molecule Major Histocompatibility Complex Gene Major Histocompatibility Complex Allele 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



My research and the ideas developed in this review have been greatly influenced by my amazing students and my fabulous collaborators, including Hannah Siddle, Menna Jones, Greg Woods, Alex Kreiss, Anne-Maree Pearse, and Hamish McCallum. I thank two anonymous reviewers for comments that improved this manuscript. My research is funded by the Australian Research Council, the University of Sydney, and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Veterinary Science, RMC Gunn B19, University of SydneySydneyAustralia

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