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HPV-Fueled Cancer Might've Killed Ancient Egyptians

Still, our cancer rate is '100 times greater'
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 26, 2018 10:20 AM CDT
Skulls found in a New Kingdom tomb in Luxor, Egypt, are seen here.   (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

(Newser) – Diagnoses have just been made for patients who've been dead for thousands of years. Researchers digging in Egypt have uncovered six cases of cancer among ancient Egyptians, including a young child with leukemia, a middle-aged woman with a carcinoma—most likely ovarian, breast, or colorectal cancer—and a middle-aged man with a preserved tumor indicating rectal cancer, per Live Science and ScienceAlert. Based on those and three other cancer cases perhaps caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), found among the remains of 1,087 Egyptians buried 1,500 to 3,000 years ago in a cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis, researchers say ancient residents had a 0.5% risk of developing cancer during their lifetimes, compared to the "100 times greater" risk of 50% for people living in the West today.

In most cases, researchers had to identify cancers based on bone damage, including holes left by tumors, and admit traces of disease could've long ago vanished. Still, the finding makes sense since ancient Egyptians had significantly shorter life spans than modern humans (which would affect lifetime cancer risk) and "the carcinogenic load in their past environments would have been considerably less carcinogenic than modern Western societies," anthropologist El Molto and doctor Peter Sheldrick write in the International Journal of Paleopathology. As three of the six cases occurred in people who died relatively young, in their 20s and 30s, the pair suspect HPV could be to blame. "HPV is a confirmed cause of cancer of the uterine cervix and testes" and "both types of cancers peak in the young adult cohorts," write the authors, who found no evidence of cancer treatment. (A 3,000-year-old prosthesis has been found.)

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