Recent radiological findings by an international team of experts may potentially dispel the long held-belief that cancer is a man-made, modern-day disease. With the diagnosis of the first real case of prostate cancer in a mummy, researchers say the causes of cancer may be more genetic than was originally thought.
The study, published in the International Journal of Paleopathology and conducted in Lisbon’s National Archaeology Museum, initially examined three mummies through the use of X-rays and advanced computerized tomography scans. Those of M1, a male Ptolemaic Egyptian mummy, were particularly of interest as they revealed several dense bone lesions located mainly on the spine, pelvis and proximal limbs, leading to the diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer.
For long, researchers have identified poor lifestyle choices and carcinogens as the main culprits behind this insidious disease. However, M1’s case suggests that investigators may have undermined the role of genetics in developing cancer. “We’re starting to see that the causes of cancer seem to be less environmental, more genetic,” said Salima Ikram, member of the research team and chair of the Egyptology department at AUC. “Living conditions in ancient times were very different. There were no pollutants or modified foods, which leads us to believe that the disease is not necessarily only linked to industrial factors.”
Ikram added, “Cancer is such a hot topic these days. Experts are constantly trying to probe in hopes of answering one question: When and how did the ailment really evolve?”
M1’s case is the oldest proven case of cancer in ancient Egypt and the second oldest in the world. In 2007, a study published by Schultz et al. in the International Journal of Cancer reported paleopathological evidence of prostate cancer in a Scythian king in Russia. Experts said that the clinical characteristics of this king, who was in his fifth decade of age, bore resemblance to those exhibited by modern-day patients. Similar to M1, cancerous lesions were also identified through microscopic observation.
Earlier archaeological findings suggest that ancient Egyptians were not oblivious to the existence of malignant tumors. Early reports of carcinoma were documented in 1500 B.C., when the Edwin Smith Papyrus detailed an initial case of breast cancer in a female. The manuscript spoke of unsuccessful attempts to surgically excise eight tumors through cauterization.
The human body replenishes itself through the production of new cells that replace old ones. This is accomplished through cell division – a process by which the body duplicates genetic material. Aberrations in this process lead to cell mutations, which may cause cancer if they occur in a critical part of the gene and persist over time. As a consequence, cancer is more frequently observed in older people.
“We’re likely seeing more cancer-led deaths today simply because people are living longer,” explained Ikram. “Life expectancy in ancient Egyptian societies ranged from 30 to 40 years, meaning that those afflicted with the disease were probably dying from reasons other than its progression.”
But why are these findings only recently reported when antiquities have been accessible to investigators for many years? The answer is simple: the advent of technology. M1’s cancer was found with the aid of highly sophisticated multi-detector computerized tomography scanners, which make the detection of the smallest tumors quickly possible.
The use of these advanced diagnostic tools is not only helpful in uncovering paleopathological evidence, but can provide a wealth of information on attributes such as age of death, lifestyle and even body composition.
In Carl Sagan’s own words, the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. “The discovery is an interesting note in the history of the disease and that of ancient Egypt,” said Ikram. “Findings such as these bring us one step closer to finding the cause of cancer, and, ultimately, the cure to a disease that has besieged mankind for so long.”