Cancer is largely believed to be a modern disease: It’s caused by a combination of lifestyle and environmental factors plus the fact that we’re living longer than ever before. But a new study in the journal PLOS ONE just turned that belief on its head.
Researchers recently identified what’s believed to be the oldest known case of cancer. [Tweet this news!] The evidence was found in an African man between the ages of 25 to 35 who died more than 3,200 years ago.
This is also the oldest complete example of human metastatic cancer—meaning the disease likely spread to his bones from another organ, such as the breast or lung, says study author Michaela Binder, a Ph.D. student at Durham University in the U.K.
So what does cancer look like in the bones of a 3,200-year-old skeleton? Much the same as it appears today, Binder says. “The ribs, vertebrae, shoulder blades, collarbones, pelvis, heads of the upper arms, and upper legs are riddled with small circular and oval shaped holes. Some of the holes are much bigger on the inside than on the outside. This is due to the fact that bone metastasis starts on the inside of the bones, in the bone marrow.”
Below is the first left rib of the skeleton. “It illustrates particularly well the differently shaped holes in the bones, and you can see they’re larger on the inside [the black and white X-ray image on top] than on the outside [below].”
This ancient finding matters more to the world of cancer research than you might imagine. “It can help us understand what factors led to cancer before the onset of modern living conditions,” Binder says. With new techniques such as DNA testing, researchers may find mutations linked to cancer in past people and track the evolution of these changes, he adds.
In short, we may have this man to thank one day for breakthroughs and discoveries that occur years from now.