Archaeologists in Poland have been studying the mummy of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian woman who died young and evidence suggests she died from nose cancer. Scientists suspect this mummy could provide new information about cancer origins in the ancient world.
In 2018, Wojtek Ejsmond, one of the three founders of the Warsaw Mummy Project told CNN that the mummy central to this story was first brought to Poland in 1826 by archaeologist Jan Wężyk-Rudzki.
Marzena Ożarek-Szilke from the department of oncology at the Medical University of Warsaw, who is also a Warsaw Mummy Project paleontologist, describes the Egyptian mummy research into cancer origins in an article published in Science in Poland . She said that the Egyptian woman from 2,000 years ago most probably died from nasopharyngeal carcinoma or nasopharynx cancer, which forms in the nasal passages.
High-tech medical tools were used to hunt for cancer origins in the 2,000-year-old female Egyptian mummy’s head shown here. ( Albert Zawada / Science in Poland )
Scans Reveal Nose Cancer
Professor Rafał Stec works at the Department of Oncology at the Medical University of Warsaw, and he told press this week that the unusual changes in the mummy’s nasopharyngeal bones “are not typical of the mummification process.” Furthermore, a team of radiologists looking at the results of computerized tomography discovered “the possibility of tumor changes in the bones.”
This particular disease is caused when malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the nasopharynx. The nasopharynx is located toward the bottom and back of the skull in the back of the nose and the roof of the mouth. The top of the nasopharynx connects to the nasal cavity, while the bottom connects to the middle throat.
Symptoms of nasopharyngeal carcinoma include difficulty breathing , speaking, or hearing. To confirm the suspected diagnosis of a malignant tumor at the base of the mummified woman’s skull the team of researchers will now collect more tissue samples. These will then be compared with samples from many other Egyptian mummies kept in museums and labs across the UK and the US.
In the search for new insights into cancer origins, radiologists used computed tomography, which revealed possible cancer tumor changes in the bones of the ancient Egyptian woman’s skull. ( Albert Zawada / Science in Poland )
Searching For Genetic Cancer Origin Signatures
Scientists looking for the ancient cancer origins not only have to account for a multitude of environmental and dietary factors, but also genetic conditions. Like today, cancer may have been common in ancient Egypt. Not only does the second oldest case of prostate cancer come from Egypt but also the earliest case of breast cancer . Incidentally, the oldest case of prostate cancer was found in Russia in a 2700-year-old skeleton of a Scythian king .
Further research on the 2,000-year-old female Egyptian mummy will soon determine the cause of the disease, and whether or not it was genetic or associated with a “virus infection, e.g., HPV,” according to Professor Stec.
The Polish researchers are convinced their analysis of this mummy might contribute to the development of “modern medicine by revealing the molecular signature of cancer that can be compared with currently occurring cancers.” But the next step towards this ambitious goal requires a full genetic analysis of the cancerous tissue found in the ancient Egyptian female mummy.
Researchers at Milan’s Mummy Project examining an Egyptian mummy before a CT scan in their quest to learn more about Egyptian health and mummification. ( Mummy Project )
Cancer Is ‘Not’ A New Killer!
All of the planned genetic analysis will be tackled by Professor Tomasz Stokłosa from the Department of Cancer Biology and Genetics of the Medical University of Warsaw. And while the research will take several months to complete the scientist hopes that by the end of this year the beginnings of new breakthroughs relating to the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer might be possible.
Why this research is so important for us today is because cancer remains one of the world’s leading causes of death. Until the age of modern detecting methods, cancer was hidden in the archaeological record, compared with other more obvious pathological conditions. This gave rise to the traditional, and highly-misinformed, conclusion that the killer disease results from modern lifestyles and longer life expectancy.
This new study will deploy a range of cutting-edge analytical techniques that will further help scientists contextualize cancer origins in the archaeological record. And ultimately, it is hoped that such studies will shine light on the evolution of the disease, and maybe even its fundamental underlying causes which still evade our understanding.
Top image: The mummified 2,000-year-old Egyptian woman at The National Museum in Warsaw, who has been examined as part of a medical project to better understand cancer origins. Source: Pawel Supernak / Science in Poland