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Hopes for cancer research… thanks to a 3,200-year-old skeleton

PhD student Michaela Binder at an archaeological dig © British Museum

18 March 2014

A 3,200-year-old skeleton discovered by a UK PhD student has provided the oldest human evidence of a type of cancer, and could give crucial information about the way the deadly disease evolved.

Michaela Binder, a 31-year-old student from Krems in Austria, found the bones of a man aged between 25 and 35, which showed evidence of metastatic carcinoma – cancer which has spread from other parts of the body.

Experts used radiography and a scanning electron microscope to show the cancer clearly in the collar bones, shoulder blades, upper arms, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and thigh bones of the skeleton, which was discovered near the Nile River in Sudan in 2013.

It is hoped that the findings can be built into modern cancer prevention research.

'This shows that cancer isn’t a modern disease, and gives us the opportunity to explore the evolution and history of cancer,” said Michaela, who is doing her PhD at Durham University as part of a multidisciplinary project with the British Museum and several UK universities.

'We now have the opportunity to extract DNA and perhaps see some of the mutations linked to cancer and build a better data basis.

'This can be important for modern research studies and takes us far beyond historical research.’

‘Dream research’

It was the opportunity to work on a multidisciplinary level that drew Michaela to apply for a PhD in the UK – that, and the chance to work with the British Museum.

'I remember being a little girl going to London with my parents and being so struck by this grand building and seeing the mummies, so getting the chance to actually work for the British Museum was a dream – it seemed too good to be true,' she said.

Michaela secured funding from the Leverhulme Trust, one of several grant-issuing bodies in the UK supporting a variety of research topics, which enabled her to study at Durham with an academic who had inspired her throughout her archaeology career – world-renowned bioarchaeologist, Professor Charlotte Roberts.

'It was an incredible chance to work with the person whose writings are the basic textbooks for this area of archaeology, and who’s also a very supportive supervisor – not just a scientist who doesn’t want to communicate any of her work,’ said Michaela.

'That’s something I’ve found across working in the UK,’ she added. 'People want to communicate their research and work in an interdisciplinary way.’

Ancient history, modern research

'The environment for archaeology is tremendous in the UK,’ Michaela said.

'It’s not just dusty halls – it’s new science.

'There’s a huge interest in the research into human diseases and how this research can fit in with modern science. We are also finding evidence of atherosclerosis [potentially lethal hardening of the arteries caused by a build-up of fats] in ancient remains, and looking into how this can inform future research.

‘This is about more than discovering the past; it’s about now. These are exciting times for archaeology.’

Inspired by what you’ve read? There are thousands of archaeology courses in the UK – click here to see pre-university courses, undergraduate courses or postgraduate courses in archaeology, or find out more about UK funding for research projects and scholarships for UK study.

To find out more about the British Museum’s Amara West project in northern Sudan, visit: www.britishmuseum.org/AmaraWest