PhD student pioneers devil disease test | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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PhD student pioneers devil disease test

A University of the Sunshine Coast PhD student has detected the deadly leptospirosis bacteria in Tasmanian devils for the first time and isolated a strain of the disease never before seen in Australian wildlife.

Sarah Wynwood pioneered a technique for testing leptospirosis in humans and animals as part of her PhD study and decided to develop and test her hypotheses on the Tasmanian devil population.

“I am from Tasmania and am particularly passionate about leptospirosis research and wildlife conservation,” she said.

Ms Wynwood’s research was supervised by Dr David McKay of USC and Dr Scott Craig of Queensland Health.

Dr Mackay explained that the study had successfully improved the way in which the disease could be detected in both people and animals, and said it would be crucial in helping to protect Tasmanian devils.

“Sarah’s work opens up a range of interesting research possibilities which could lead to a better understanding of the disease in devils and also allow better methods of conservation,” he said.

“Of particular interest would be defining just how virulent this unique type of the bacterium is in devils and whether there is any link between leptospirosis and the devil facial tumour disease that’s causing a critical decline in devil populations.”

Ms Wynwood said the support and guidance from her supervisors at USC had made her ground-breaking research possible.

“The University of the Sunshine Coast allowed me to complete my higher degree in research in an area of particular interest to me and that gave me the confidence to broaden my research goals and expand my expertise,” she said.

“As this is the first time leptospirosis has been seen in Tasmanian devils, and the first time this particular strain has been seen in any Australian wildlife, I believe it’s clear there is still much more research to be done in this field.”

Ms Wynwood recently presented her PhD paper at the Australian Mammal Society annual conference in Hobart, and submitted her final thesis on the topic late last month.

— Megan Woodward

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