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Discovering the oldest cases of breast cancer and multiple myeloma

An image of one of the analysed mummies, generated thanks to the use of a scanner.
An image of one of the analysed mummies, generated thanks to the use of a scanner. / SUR
  • Investigators from Granada university are using TAC software on four mummies found in the Egyptian city of Aswan

A team of investigators, among them anthropologists from Granada university, has discovered the oldest cases of breast cancer and multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer, in two mummies found in Qubbet el Hawa, an ancient Egyptian cemetery in the city of Aswan.

The female mummy is estimated to have died around 2000 BC and the male around 1800 BC, of myeloma. Both were probably members of the ruling class, or at least upper class, from families of Egyptian governors in Elephantine, now known as Aswan.

The investigators used Transcriptome Analysis Console (TAC) software to obtain the best results when analysing the mummies. Traditional methods would require the partial rupture of bandages and parts of the mummy. This technique allows the team to see the smallest details of the bones and the bandages, as well as the ancient embalming methods, while still conserving the remains.

Using the same technique, keeping the bandages and burial garments intact, the team studied two whole mummies, in this case from the Roman period.

Reconstruction with special software has allowed them to investigate every detail of these mummies: one is of a nine-year-old boy, another of a teenage girl. While the older mummies affected by cancer have been reduced to bones and bandage heaps, these were intact, indicating that, over time, the ancient Egyptians changed their embalming methods. They only began to use the methods described by Greek historian Herodoto in the Roman period, from 10 BC.

Images of the mummies were generated by the radiodiagnostic department at the Aswan University Hospital, with a scanner capable of making 124 tomographic cuts simultaneously. They worked together with scientists from the local hospital.

No signs of illness could be found in the Roman era mummies, so their most probable cause of death was an acute infection, given that this type of illness, if uncured, goes away after death and would not leave traces on the bones.

In Ancient Egypt this was the most common cause of death, and continues to be all over the world, despite the vast medical resources available.