“Why she died?” is the most frequent question that we hear. We still are not sure, but now we know she most probably had cancer. Cancer is one of the leading cause of deaths. To fight it we need to know its history. Our recent discovery provides us with priceless and unique sources.
The Mysterious Lady, also known as the Pregnant Mummy, was found at the beginning of the 19th century in Thebes and donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826. Currently, being a property of University of Warsaw it is exhibited at the National Museum in Warsaw (under the museum number 236805/3 MNW). During the radiological examination of ancient Egyptian mummies, made as part of the Warsaw Mummy Project, carried out with the help of the University of Warsaw, the National Museum in Warsaw, Affidea, General Electric Healthcare, and Grey Group, the object, along with others, was X-rayed and CT scanned. The analysis of the data revealed changes in the craniofacial bones, corresponding with similar to observed as activity of nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC). This is a type of cancer that originates in the nasopharynx (area of the nose and throat). Additionally, the CT images of the bone behind the left eye orbit present features that may be identified as presence of a small tumor – possibly place of metastasis.
At this stage of the research, we can say that the changes on the bones may be a neoplastic disease, which in this case probably led to the death of this young pregnant woman.
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 the cancer at the cellular level and at a genetic stage.
This type of potential cancer is interesting due to the fact that it is vastly more common in certain regions of East Asia and Africa than elsewhere. Migrants from this part of the world living elsewhere suffer from it more often than the original population in their new countries, thus it is thought that there may be a strong genetic predisposition. Nevertheless, viral and dietary factors may also be very important, but it is currently unknown to what extent. 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.
How ancient mummies can help in curing cancer?
A common false assumption is that cancer is a modern disease. It is not. The oldest known case is a hominid individual who lived in South Africa 1.7 million year ago. While Homo Sapiens appeared about 300,000 years ago. This shows that cancer has already plagued earlier hominids. It is one of the oldest diseases documented in human history.
Presently, the condition depends on many factors including old age, tobacco and alcohol use, obesity, certain types of viral infections such as the human papillomavirus (HPV), and genetic predisposition. It is possible that changes in the environment and lifestyle may increase its frequency. Among other things, this last question can be answered by researching cancer in ancient, preserved tissue, such as the mummy in question.
There is a hope
In recent decades, the life expectancy of people diagnosed with cancer has increased significantly, e.g. 5-year relative survival rate in Australia increased from around 50% to approx. 70%. This is a testimony to the tremendous work of the scientific community involved in the research.
The identified samples of ancient cancer include bone tumors, traces of soft tissue tumors that left marks on the bones, and a soft tissue tumors found in mummified tissues. 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. 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.
Research and popularization of research is possible thanks to cooperation with:
Medical University of Warsaw,
Museum of the University of Warsaw,
National Museum in Warsaw,
Silesian Museum in Katowice,
Faculty of Physics of the University of Warsaw
Grey Groupe Poland,