An 18th Century Hungarian Mummy Could Teach Us More About Colon Cancer

A young woman works in a medical lab.

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From 1731 to 1838, the Dominican church in Vác, Hungary maintained crypts for the burial of middle-class families and clerics. The crypts actually contained perfect conditions for natural mummification, and in 1995 265 mummies were excavated there, about 70% of the bodies buried. Since then, researchers have discovered all kinds of interesting facts about the people buried, including that some of them had tuberculosis.

But recently, researchers from Tel Aviv University discovered evidence that at least one of those individuals may have had a genetic predisposition to colon cancer, something we’ve never seen before. Colon cancer is often connected to obesity, physical inactivity, and processed foods, but there is also a definitive genetic connection as well. The question of which came first, the post-industrial causes or the genetics, is a bit of a chicken and egg mystery.

But, Dr. Rina Rosin-Arbesfield, Dr. Ella H. Sklan, Professor Israel Herhkovitz and Michal Feldman have found evidence that the genetic predisposition may have existed as far back as the 18th century. They used genetic sequencing of soft tissue from mummies and found that one of them may have had the specific mutation that can lead to colorectal cancer. They need to do more research though, in order to find out for sure if the mummy had that mutation or not.

And, since there’s only one mummy with that mutation, the sample size is too small to be sure if the mutation was at all common, much less as common as it is now. More research will have to be done, but it’s exciting to think that we may be able to trace colorectal cancer further back into human history. That knowledge could help us develop ways to fight cancer, and open up the possibility of discovering other historic cases of similar diseases, something that researchers may not have thought about as much as they are now.

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