2,900-year-old Egyptian mummy had rare, cancer-like disease

About 2,900 years after he was mummified, scientists have uncovered that the ancient Egyptian man, likely in his 20s, died of a rare, cancer-like disease.

Last Updated: Apr 29, 2012, 16:47 PM IST

Washington: About 2,900 years after he was mummified, scientists have uncovered that the ancient Egyptian man, likely in his 20s, died of a rare, cancer-like disease that may also have left him with a type of diabetes.

A team of doctors who looked at the mummy, which is now in the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb in Croatia, found that while mummifying, the embalmers removed the man`s brain, may be through the nose; poured resin-like fluid into his head and pelvis; took out some of his organs and inserted four linen "packets" into his body.

His body showed telltale signs that he suffered from Hand-Schuller-Christian disease, an enigmatic condition in which Langerhans cells, a type of immune cell found in the skin, multiply rapidly.

"They tend to replace normal structure of the bone and all other soft tissues," Dr Mislav Cavka, a medical doctor at the University of Zagreb who is one of the study`s leaders, told LiveScience. "We could say it is one sort of cancer."

Scientists are still not sure what causes the disease, but it is very rare, affecting about one in 560,000 young adults, more often males. "In ancient times it was lethal, always," said Cavka, who added that today it can be treated.

The mummy was believed to have transferred to the 2,300 year-old sarcophagus of a woman named Kareset, and until now scientists had assumed that it belonged to the lady.

Cavka and colleagues, who detailed their findings in the Collegium Antropologicum, examined the mummy using X-rays, a CT scan and a newly developed technique for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

The disease, they said, seems to have taken a terrible toll on the ancient man`s body, with images revealing it destroyed parts of his skeleton, leaving lytic lesions throughout his spine and skull.

The scans also showed what looks like a giant hole in his skull`s frontal-parietal bone, and destruction of a section of one of his eye sockets known as the "orbital wall", they said.

The mummy-embalming procedure may have worsened some of the disease-caused damage, the researchers said.

Even so,the effects of the disease would have been "very, very painful," and would have affected the man`s appearance, particularly in the final stage, Cavka said.

In addition, it may have led him to suffer from a form of diabetes. The scans show that his sella turcica, part of the skull that holds the pituitary gland, is shallow, which suggests that this gland was also affected by the disease.

"That could have lead to diabetes insipidus," the team said, adding that the condition would have made it difficult for his kidneys to conserve water, something that would have worsened the man`s predicament.

"Probably he was all the time thirsty, hungry and had to urinate," Cavka said.

Scientists have long debated whether or not cancer was common in ancient times. While some believe that with lower life expectancies and fewer pollutants cancer`s prevalence was very low, some others believe the disease was more common than thought, but simply very hard to detect in ancient remains.

The researchers point out this mummy is the third known case of Hand-Schuller- Christian`s disease from ancient Egypt, suggesting the condition was as common among the ancients as it is today. "Tumours are not diseases of the new age," Cavka said.

PTI