An ancient Egyptian woman, believed to be the first-ever known case of an embalmed pregnant mummy, may have died of cancer, scientists say.
The mummy – discovered at the beginning of the 19th century in Thebes and donated to the University of Warsaw in Poland in 1826 – was X-rayed and CT scanned as part of a study, researchers said in a blog post.
Analysis of the data from the radiological examination showed changes in the craniofacial bones, “corresponding with similar to observed as activity of nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC),” which originates in an area of the nose and throat, they added.
Scientists from the University of Warsaw say they could also find features that may be identified as the presence of a small tumor in CT images of the bone behind the left eye orbit.
They say the changes observed on the mummified woman’s bones may have led to her death.
This type of cancer, according to the researchers, is “vastly more common” in certain regions of East Asia and Africa than elsewhere.
While the mysterious woman may have had a “strong genetic predisposition” to the disease, scientists say viral and dietary factors may also have been important to an extent that is unknown.
“The research of the Mysterious Lady, who unlike present population was not exposed to cigarette smoke, neither strong alcohol (ancient Egyptians knew only beer and wine), can provide a new insight on cancer factors,” scientists wrote.
“Nevertheless, as in the case of suspected cancer in a living patient, here too, we would like to perform histopathological examinations to confirm the disease and take a closer look at cancer at the cellular level and at a genetic stage,” they added.
The findings, researchers say could shed more light on how cancer has affected people over the ages.
Currently, the earliest known case of the disease is a hominid individual who lived in South Africa 1.7 million year ago.
In comparison, modern humans or Homo Sapiens appeared about 300,000 years ago, researchers say.
Since changes in the environment and lifestyle may alter the risk of a person developing cancer, scientists believe researching cancer in ancient, preserved tissue, such as the mummy in question, can provide valuable insights.
“The mummy of The Mysterious Lady presents fragments of potentially cancerous soft tissues in the area where the bone also is bearing marks of potential cancer,” researchers said.
“Sampling them, along with mummified internal organs, and subjecting to histopathological, genetic and molecular tests, will enable the chance to answer many questions about this disease,” they added.