Korean mummy could be key to fighting hepatitis B

The first samples of hepatitis B have ever been found on a mummified body could provide valuable information on the evolution of the often fatal virus.

July 23, 2007 21:19
2 minute read.
Korean mummy could be key to fighting hepatitis B

korean mummy 298.88. (photo credit: Courtesy of Seoul National Univresity)


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Hepatitis B virus taken from the preserved liver of a mummified child who lived in South Korea half a millennium ago is being studied by Hebrew University infectious disease and liver experts. It was the first time that samples of hepatitis B have ever been found on a mummified body. Mummies could provide valuable information on the evolution of the often fatal virus. Prof. Mark Spigelman of the Hebrew University's Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases was invited by researchers at Dankook University and Seoul National University to examine the specimen. Spigelman and the liver unit at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem are now part of an international team conducting research on the mummies that includes British experts from University College London in addition to the Koreans. Spigelman is noted known for his pioneering work in the study of ancient diseases (palaeoepidemiology) found in mummified bodies from Hungary to Sudan; his efforts are aimed at providing answers on how contemporary diseases such as tuberculosis, leishmaniasis and influenza have evolved. Hepatitis B, which kills about a million people around the world each year, causes liver dysfunction and can lead to liver cancer or liver failure. In South Korea, the need to manage the virus is particularly important, as 12 percent of the population are hepatitis carriers, compared with a world average of 5%. In China, the virus is one of the leading causes of cancer. Until recently, no one even knew that mummies existed in Korea, which has an ancient tradition of ancestor worship and the belief that at death, the soul rises up and the body has to go back to its natural components, without interference. This belief meant that mummification was anathema in Korean culture. However, with the takeover of the neo-Confucianist Joseon Dynasty in 1392, changes were made to the former Buddhist burial practices. The modified burial process involved laying the body on ice for three to 30 days during mourning, placing it inside an inner and an outer pine coffin surrounded by the dead person's clothes, and covering the coffin in a lime soil mixture. "In some cases, this inadvertently resulted in extremely good natural mummification," says Spigelman. The building boom in South Korea has meant that many cemeteries have had to be relocated; it is this process that led to the discovery of the mummified bodies. The Israeli researchers plan to study the genome of the 500-year-old virus to find any significant changes in it over time. "Five hundred years ago, was it hepatitis B?" Spigelman asks. "Could it be that later on, it split from X and became A and B? Was it already evolved? That's what we don't know." He added that the research was a "know your enemy" expedition "to see if we can get information that can help today's - and tomorrow's - sufferers." He believes that knowing what a virus did 500 years ago helps us understand what it will do as it continues to evolve and will ultimately alter the practice of public health officials in combating it.

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