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X-rays Find Metastatic Cancer In 3,000-Year-Old Bones

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Is cancer mostly a modern disease, attributable to such unhealthy habits as smoking and spending too much time on the couch?

X-rays and a scanning electron microscope have revealed metastatic cancer in multiple bones of a skeleton that’s more than 3,000 years old. The find provides evidence that the answer to that question is “yes, but,” according to a study published recently in PLOS ONE, the online open-source journal.

Michaela Binder, a PhD student in archaeology at Durham University in Durham, United Kingdom, is lead author of the article. She said the research was of more than mere academic interest:

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

Binder was quoted in a university news release.

The skeleton came from a tomb at a site called Amara West in northern Sudan, on the Nile River. Researchers determined that it was of a male estimated to have been 25 to 35 years old when he died. Cancer had metastasized to the unfortunate man’s collarbones, shoulder blades, upper arm bones, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis, and thigh bones.

The researchers could only guess at what might have caused the cancer. Suspects include smoke from wood fires, genetic factors, and infectious diseases such as schistosomiasis.

The PLOS ONE article discusses possible reasons that few metastatic cancers have been confirmed in ancient skeletons, such as short life spans and the simple fact only a small percentage of old bones have been X-rayed to see whether signs of cancer lurk within.

It concludes that this new find “provides further support for the claim that cancer is a disease of considerable antiquity.” However, it also adds, “It may not have been as prevalent as today, and there is little doubt that the main factor accounting for the increased prevalence of cancer is undoubtedly modern living.”

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The same researchers have found evidence in skeletons from the same area that another “modern” scourge also plagued the ancients: clogged arteries. For details on how they used X-rays to detect atherosclerosis in millennia-old skeletons, see our Facebook page.

Related CME seminar (up to 13.25 AMA PRA Category 1 credits™): UCSF Musculoskeletal MR Imaging

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