Colon Cancer Found in 18th-Century Hungarian Mummy
A Hungarian mummy's genes are helping scientists better understand the causes of colorectal cancer.
Credit: Tel Aviv University

Tissue samples from a Hungarian mummy have revealed that people in the early 17th and 18th centuries suffered from colon cancer, long before the modern plagues of obesity, physical inactivity and processed food were established as causes of the disease, according to new research.

In a new study of 18th-century Hungarian mummies, scientists found that the genetic predisposition to colon cancer predates modern impacts on health. One of the mummies in the study carried a mutation in the adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) gene, which physicians now know raises the risk of colon cancer, said lead study author Michal Feldman, a research assistant formerly at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

If the APC mutation is confirmed in other samples, it could mean that inherited changes in DNA play a bigger role in cancer evolution than do modern environmental impacts, Feldman told Live Science in an email. [10 Do's and Don'ts to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer]

"Today, colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer, and it has a clear genetic background that is well-researched in modern populations," Feldman said. "In light of the many lifestyle and environmental changes human society has undergone during the last few centuries, we found it important to compare the spectrum of historical mutations to the modern spectrum."

Because mummification preserves tissue, samples from such remains can give scientists invaluable information on anthropological, historical and medical details, Feldman said. In the past, studies of mummified remains have provided clues about the history of tuberculosis, clogged arteries and even air pollution.

In the new study, Feldman's team collected tissue samples from 20 mummies that were excavated from sealed crypts in a Dominican church in Vác, Hungary. These crypts were used for the burial of several middle-class families and clerics from 1731 to 1838, and more than 265 mummies were found there in 1995, the researchers said. The mummies are now housed at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

The low temperature in the crypts, combined with constant ventilation and low humidity, were ideal conditions for natural mummification of the corpses, the researchers said. Some 70 percent of the bodies found in the location were completely or partially mummified, providing a rich source of preserved tissue and DNA samples for the scientists. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

By extracting DNA from the mummies, Feldman and her team were able to sequence and assess the presence of APC gene mutations.

"The interesting thing about this study is that the APC mutation in cancer that was recently discovered in the past couple of decades is not new," said Dr. Sidney Winawer, a gastroenterologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who was not involved in the study. "This opens up a whole new way of thinking. If this mutation was present so many years ago, why was it present there?"

Additional historical samples need to be investigated, he said, in order to better understand the relationships between cancer and environmental factors, such as lifestyle, and between cancer and genetic changes.

The findings were published online Feb. 10 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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