The 3,000-year-old skeleton which could shed light on causes of cancer

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A DURHAM University student has uncovered the oldest complete example of a human who died from cancer that spread across his body.

The PhD student found the 3,000-year-old skeleton of a young man in a tomb in modern Sudan.

Analysis has revealed evidence of metastatic carcinoma – cancer which has spread to other parts of the body – from a malignant soft-tissue tumour spread across large areas of the body, making it the oldest convincing complete example of metastatic cancer in the world.

Researchers from Durham University and the British Museum say the discovery will help to explore underlying causes of cancer in ancient populations and provide insights into the evolution of the disease in the past.

Even though cancer is one of the world’s leading causes of death, it remains almost absent from the archaeological record compared to other pathological conditions, giving rise to the conclusion that the disease is mainly a product of modern living and increased longevity.

Lead author, Michaela Binder, a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, excavated and examined the skeleton.

She said: “Very little is known about the antiquity, epidemiology and evolution of cancer in past human populations apart from some textual references and a small number of skeletons with signs of cancer.

“Insights gained from archaeological human remains like these can really help us to understand the evolution and history of modern diseases.

“Our analysis showed that the shape of the small lesions on the bones can only have been caused by a soft tissue cancer even though the exact origin is impossible to determine through the bones alone.”

The skeleton is of a man thought to be between 25 and 35 years old when he died, and was found at the archaeological site of Amara West in northern Sudan, 750km downstream of Khartoum. It dates back to 1200BC.

Previously, there has only been one convincing, and two tentative, examples of metastatic cancer predating the 1st millennium BC reported in human remains.

However, because the remains derived from early 20th century excavations, only the skulls were kept making a full re-analysis of each skeleton, to generate possible diagnoses, impossible. The skeleton was examined by experts at Durham University and the British Museum using radiography and a scanning electron microscope which resulted in clear imaging of the lesions on the bones. It showed cancer metastases on the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones.

Although reserachers cannot be sure of the type of cancer that killed him, they believe it may be from infectious diseases such as schistosomiasis which is caused by parasites.

The disease has plagued inhabitants of Egypt and Nubia since at least 1500BC, and is now recognised as a cause of bladder cancer and breast cancer in men.

Michaela Binder added: “Through taking an evolutionary approach to cancer, information from ancient human remains may prove a vital element in finding ways to address one of the world’s major health problems.”