Cancer could be genetic, suggests evidence of ancient Egyptian mummy
Recent diagnosis of prostate cancer in an ancient Egyptian mummy, M1, may potentially prove that cancer is more genetic than was originally thought.
The findings could dispel the belief that cancer is a man-made, modern-day disease.
"The discovery is an interesting note in the history of the disease and that of ancient Egypt," said Salima Ikram, chair of the Egyptology department at the American University in Cairo and a member of the research team that studied the mummy in Lisbon, Portugal. "[It] brings us one step closer to finding the cause of cancer, and, ultimately, the cure to a disease that has besieged mankind for so long."
Ikram added that through advanced tomography and studying the way of mummification, the team concluded that M1 was the mummy of a middle-class man with several dense bone lesions located on areas near the prostate.
However, "Cancer was not the main reason of the death of this man, but it contributed to it, which means that the ailment is not just a result of modern pollution or of diet, but it has genetic basis," she told The Caravan.
Having established that cancer is an ancient disease, Ikram explains that we see more cancer-led deaths as years pass by because humans tend to live longer with more advanced health care. Life expectancy in ancient Egyptian societies ranged from 30 to 40 years, which means that those afflicted with the ailment died because of reasons other than its progression.
Experts are constantly trying to probe in hopes of answering questions about the origin of cancer and how it evolved. M1 mummy is the second oldest case of prostate cancer in the world. The earliest detection of the disease was in a 2,700-year-old skeleton of a Scythian king in Russia, leading scientists to suspect that cancer was quite prevalent in the past despite the scarcity of recorded cases.
These discoveries, according to Ikram, challenge some of the long-held beliefs that poor lifestyle and carcinogens are the main culprits behind the disease. During the time when M1 lived there were no pollutants or modified foods.
M1 is not the first evidence of ancient Egyptians' awareness of the existence of malignant tumors, however. Edwin Smith Papyrus showed records of female breast cancer, as well as failed attempts of surgical extraction of tumors through cauterization.
In addition to being the chair of the Egyptology department at AUC and part of the Lisbon research team that discovered the ailment in M1, Ikram is also a grantee of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research, founder and co-director of the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and Exploration, and an international guest speaker. Highlights of her professional career include a visiting scholar at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), a consultant Egyptologist at Giza, Saqqara, Abu Sir, Valley of the Kings, and Co-Director of the North Kharga Oasis Survey.