A new study of 18th century Hungarian mummies found that a genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer preceded the advent of modernization.
If this finding is confirmed it would mean that the role of processed food, physical inactivity and other factors that were not commonplace back then may not play as important of a role in causing cancer.
Colorectal cancer is among the most common health hazards of today.
Colorectal cancer has a proven genetic background and researchers want to discover whether or not people of the past carried the APC mutation, how common it was, and whether it was the same mutation as today. The big picture question is whether the increase in the incidence of cancer is the result of man’s manipulation of nature alone?
In 1995, researchers excavated more then 265 mummies from sealed crypts in the Dominican church in Vac, Hungary. These crypts were used for the burial of middle-class families and clerics from 1731 to 1838. The crypts provided ideal conditions for the natural mummification of corpses, low temperatures, constant ventilation and low humidity.
Researchers took 51 samples from 20 Hungarian mummies and used genetic sequencing to identify mutations in APC genes in a sample of large intestine tissue that were isolated from the mummies.
The data revealed that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation. That means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era. Having the soft tissue was critical because it carries evidence of disease. Very few diseases attack the skeleton, but soft tissue carries evidence of disease. Soft tissue presents an ideal opportunity to carry out a detailed genetic analysis and test for a wide variety of pathogens.
However, this mutation has only been found in 1 individual so far. Additional studies with a larger sample size should be conducted in order to draw more meaningful conclusions.