New York: Often thought to be a lethal product of modernity, colon cancer may actually have its roots in pre-modern days as researchers have discovered a genetic mutation implicated in this debilitating disease in an 18th-century Hungarian mummy.
The modern plagues of obesity, physical inactivity and processed food have been definitively established as causes of colon cancer, and researchers have also associated a mutation of the Adenomatous polyposis coli (APC) gene with the deadly disease.
But the new research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that a genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer, may not be of recent origin.
The researchers discovered this genetic mutation in one of the 265 mummies that were excavated from sealed crypts in the Dominican church in Vac, Hungary in 1995.
These crypts were used continuously from 1731 to 1838 for the burial of middle-class families and clerics and provided ideal conditions for the natural mummification of corpses – low temperatures, constant ventilation and low humidity.
Some 70 per cent of the bodies found had been completely or partially mummified.
The preservation of the tissue samples and abundant archival information about the individuals buried in the crypts attracted researchers from around the world, all of whom were interested in conducting their own morphological and genetic studies of the human remains.
"We wanted to discover whether people in the past carried the APC mutation -- how common it was, and whether it was the same mutation known to us today,” said lead researcher Rina Rosin-Arbesfeld from Tel Aviv University in Israel.
The researchers used genetic sequencing to identify mutations in APC genes that were isolated from the mummies.
"Our data reveal that one of the mummies may have had a cancer mutation. This means that a genetic predisposition to cancer may have already existed in the pre-modern era," Ella Sklan from Tel Aviv University said.
"But we have found this mutation in only one individual so far. Additional studies with a larger sample size should be conducted in order to draw more meaningful conclusions," Sklan noted.