There are many theories regarding the prevalence of cancer in modern society. Lifestyle is known to have an impact on the chances of developing cancer, with obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking known as risk factors in developing colorectal cancer. Out of those who develop the disease, around half of the cases can be related to a mutation in a specific gene. Whether this mutation is influenced by these high-risk lifestyle choices, or occurs randomly, is hard to distinguish. So researchers from Tel Aviv University turned to mummified human remains from 18th-century Hungary in the search for answers.
After running a genetic analysis on the preserved soft tissue from a number of the mummies, the scientists found a mutation in a gene called Adenomatous polyposis coli (APC), which is associated with colon cancer. “Colorectal cancer is among the most common health hazards of modern times,” says Dr. Rina Rosin-Arbesfeld, who led the research published in PLOS ONE, in a statement. “And it has a proven genetic background. We wanted to discover whether people in the past carried the APC mutation – how common it was, and whether it was the same mutation known to us today.”
The researchers managed to acquire tissue samples from 20 mummies that were excavated along with 245 others from sealed crypts in Hungary. The crypts were originally used between 1731 and 1838, when middle class families and clerics were interred in the church. The low temperatures, humidity, and constant airflow provided ideal conditions to preserve many of the bodies, which were removed in 1995. The mummies give a valuable and rare insight into the history of people living in Europe during the 18th century.
The tissue samples have been used for a variety of medical studies, as the causes of death for many of the individuals were recorded. One of the studies looking into tuberculosis discovered that a number of the bodies had the bacterium responsible for the disease present, and were even able to trace the strains back to the Roman era. This gave Dr. Rosin-Arbesfeld the idea to use tissue samples from the mummies to study the history of colon cancer.
“Our data reveal that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation,” explains Dr. Ella Sklan, one of the study's co-authors. “This means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era. But we've found this mutation in only one individual so far. Additional studies with a larger sample size should be conducted in order to draw more meaningful conclusions.” Although, just because the individual carried this mutation, it does not mean that he had, or would have developed, colon cancer. Regardless, the researchers hope that their research will help in understanding the evolutionary history of diseases, and their prevalence among pre-industrialized communities.
Image in text: One of the mummies discovered in a crypt in Hungary in 1995. Tel Aviv University