Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Cancer is an ancient disease
An X-ray of vertebrae from a 50–to 60–year–old man exhumed from an early medieval cemetery in Slovakia showed damage from what paleopathologists believe was metastatic carcinoma – a cancer that began in the soft tissues of the body and spread to the bone. Picture from The New York Times.
When they excavated a Scythian burial mound in the Russian region of Tuva about 10 years ago, archaeologists literally struck gold. Crouched on the floor of a dark inner chamber were two skeletons, a man and a woman, surrounded by royal garb from 27 centuries ago: headdresses and capes adorned with gold horses, panthers and other sacred beasts.
But for paleopathologists — scholars of ancient disease — the richest treasure was the abundance of tumors that had riddled almost every bone of the man’s body. The diagnosis: the oldest known case of metastasizing prostate cancer.
The prostate itself had disintegrated long ago. But malignant cells from the gland had migrated according to a familiar pattern and left identifiable scars. Proteins extracted from the bone tested positive for PSA, prostate specific antigen.
Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us. Where scientists disagree is on how much it has been amplified by the sweet and bitter fruits of civilization. Over the decades archaeologists have made about 200 possible cancer sightings dating to prehistoric times. But considering the difficulties of extracting statistics from old bones, is that a little or a lot?
A recent report by two Egyptologists in the journal Nature Reviews: Cancer reviewed the literature, concluding that there is “a striking rarity of malignancies” in ancient human remains.(...)
“There is no reason to think that cancer is a new disease,” said Robert A. Weinberg, a cancer researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass., and the author of the textbook “The Biology of Cancer.” “In former times, it was less common because people were struck down in midlife by other things.”
Another consideration, he said, is the revolution in medical technology: “We now diagnose many cancers — breast and prostate — that in former times would have remained undetected and been carried to the grave when the person died of other, unrelated causes.”
Keep on reading the article by George Johnson: