Colon cancer gene mutation found in 18th century mummy

"Very few diseases attack the skeleton, but soft tissue carries evidence of disease," researcher Israel Hershkovitz said.
By Brooks Hays   |   Feb. 29, 2016 at 4:44 PM

TEL AVIV, Israel, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- A gene mutation associated with colon cancer has been discovered in an 18th century Hungarian mummy. The finding suggests colon cancer's genetic roots predate modern risk factors.

In 1995, some 265 mummies were excavated from a Dominican burial site in Vac, Hungary. The site was used between 1731 and 1838. A combination of low temperatures, ventilation and low humidity allowed for excellent tissue preservation.

Recent DNA analysis of the preserved tissue revealed a mutation of the Adenomatous polyposis coli gene, or APC gene -- a gene linked with the deadly gastrointestinal disease.

"Colorectal cancer is among the most common health hazards of modern times," Rina Rosin-Arbesfeld, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, said in a press release. "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," Rosin-Arbesfeld continued. "In other words: Is the increase in the incidence of cancer the result of man's manipulation of nature alone?"

Researchers say the discovery -- detailed in the journal PLOS ONE -- may pave the way for further exploration of pathological origins in preserved tissue.

"Very few diseases attack the skeleton, but soft tissue carries evidence of disease," researcher Israel Hershkovitz said. "It presents an ideal opportunity to carry out a detailed genetic analysis and test for a wide variety of pathogens."

Modern habits, including the consumption of processed foods and lack of exercise, have been strongly linked with colorectal cancer. The disease has also been linked with the APC gene.

"Our data reveals that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation," researcher Ella H. Sklan said. "This means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era."

Because the gene mutation was found in only a single specimen, researchers say they won't be able to draw concrete conclusions. Further exploration and a larger genetic sample size are needed.

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