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Earliest Cancer Case Found in a Sudanese Skeleton

Update Date: Mar 18, 2014 09:31 AM EDT

Researchers have identified the earliest case of cancer. The skeleton, which was found at the Amara West site in northern Sudan last year, dates back to 1,200 BC. Researchers believe that the ancient 3,200-year-old skeleton was a man who died between the ages of 25 and 35. He was found in a wooden coffin with a glazed amulet.

When the bones were first discovered and removed from the buried site by Michaela Binder, a PhD student at Durham University in northeast England, she noted that the bones had numerous holes in them. Based on this observation, Binder and Daniel Antoine, a curator from the British Museum, conducted more tests and discovered that the bones were riddled with cancer.

"It was very exciting to work with such a well preserved skeleton," Antoine said to BBC News. "The marks on the bones were very clear and our analysis showed that there was evidence that the young man suffered from a type of cancer."

The researchers stated that the bones appeared to be infected with a metastatic carcinoma that had spread throughout various parts of the body. They could not identify where the cancer originated from in the body or what might have caused it. During those times, environmental factors such as wood fire smoke could have caused cancer. The team also stated that genetics could have played a factor as well. The researchers could not conclude whether or not the soft-tumor cancer was the cause of death.

"This may help us to understand the almost unknown history of the disease. We have very few examples pre the first millennium AD," Binder said according to the AFP.

She added, "I was surprised to see such a cancer in an individual from ancient Egyptian times. We still don't know a lot about cancer. Only a very few examples have been found of the disease in the distant past."

This latest discovery suggests that cancer, which is often viewed as a modern day disease caused by smoking, stressors and unhealthy lifestyles, could have occurred earlier than researchers had believed. The previous cancer case in an ancient being was 2,000 years later than this skeleton.

The study, "On the Antiquity of Cancer: Evidence for Metastatic Carcinoma in a Young Man from Ancient Nubia (c. 1200BC)," was published in PLOS ONE.

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