Berlin: Scientists have discovered what may be the oldest known case of leukemia in an approximately 7,000-year-old skeleton of a woman from a Neolithic graveyard in Germany.
Researchers used high-resolution computer tomography to detect indications of the blood cancer in the skeleton of a woman who died between 30 and 40 years of age.
Except alveolar inflammation and dental caries, the 'individual G61' from the Neolithic graveyard of Stuttgart-Muhlhausen was not affected by other diseases, according to Dr Heike Scherf of the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment at the University of Tubingen.
Scherf and her colleagues found indications of leukemia on the skeleton of a woman, who was between 30 and 40 years of age at the time of death.
"We examined several bones of the skeleton with our high-resolution computed tomography system, and we found an unusual loosening of the interior bone tissue - the cancellous bone - in the upper right humerus and the sternum," said Scherf.
In adults, the ends of the humeri and the sternum, as well as the vertebrae, ribs, skull, pelvis and the ends of the femurs contain hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells. In these locations, leukemia - known as blood cancer - can occur.
The team of scientists working with Scherf compared the humerus of the 7,000-year-old "patient" with humeri of 11 individuals from the same site in southern Germany, where they were excavated between 1982 and 1993.
"None of the other specimens showed this significant pattern. Even though they come from the same site and belong to the same age group," said Scherf.
Other diseases that cause similar symptoms were ruled out by scientists.
"The biological age and the restriction of the findings to the humerus and sternum counter-indicate osteoporosis," Scherf said.
"Hyperparathyroidism, a hyperfunction of the parathyroid gland, can be ruled out because typical characteristics for this pathology, which manifest in other parts of the skeleton, such as the skull and the finger bones were not found," she said.
According to Scherf, the results therefore strongly indicate a case of leukemia in 'individual G61.' This would be the oldest evidence of leukemia to date.
"However, we cannot determine whether the woman actually died from the disease," said Scherf.