2,000-year-old ancient Egyptian mummy likely had cancer - study

Cancer cells found in remains of the mummy can advance modern medicine, Polish researchers say

 A cameraman films the only known example of a pregnant Egyptian mummy, displayed at an exhibition in National Museum in Warsaw, Poland May 4, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)
A cameraman films the only known example of a pregnant Egyptian mummy, displayed at an exhibition in National Museum in Warsaw, Poland May 4, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

An analysis of the remains of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy found that she may have suffered from nasopharyngeal cancer, a Polish study published on Thursday has revealed.

The mummy skeleton, kept at the National Museum in Poland's capital Warsaw, was analyzed by an interdisciplinary group of researchers from the University of Warsaw.

Their findings were published in Science in Poland, a website operated by the Polish Press Agency dedicated to reporting scientific discoveries made in Poland.

The study was carried out as part of the Warsaw Mummy Project, in which paleontologists, archaeologists and bio-archaeologists joined forces to uncover more details through a thorough examination of human and animal mummies from ancient Egypt. 

The woman is believed to have died at a relatively young age.

 A cameraman films the only known example of a pregnant Egyptian mummy, displayed at an exhibition in National Museum in Warsaw, Poland May 4, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL) A cameraman films the only known example of a pregnant Egyptian mummy, displayed at an exhibition in National Museum in Warsaw, Poland May 4, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

Prof. Rafał Stec, from the university's Department of Oncology, estimated a high probability of the woman dying from cancer due to her young age and the lack of other potential causes of death found.

"Firstly, we have unusual changes in the nasopharyngeal bones," which is not typically found in bodies that went through the mummification process, Stec explained. "Secondly, the opinions of radiologists based on computed tomography indicate the possibility of tumor changes in the bones."

According to the researchers, the finding of cancerous cells in remains from ancient Egypt is common, with several known, confirmed cases of nasopharyngeal cancer in the archaeological record.

The mummy is suspected to have had a malignant tumor, although researchers cannot determine that with 100% certainty, Stec admitted, adding that a definitive diagnosis is only possible after a histopathological examination is conducted.

Ancient mummy can advance modern medicine

Analyzing the mummy's illness can significantly contribute to modern medicine, the researchers noted.

By uncovering the molecular signature of the cancer, the research team can compare it to modern-day cancers to examine and expand on cancer evolution studies. The research can potentially aid in making a breakthrough in the diagnostics and treatment of cancer.

Further research planned by the team will see them collect tissue samples from the mummy to compare with cancer samples found in other Egyptian mummies examined in the US and the UK.

This will help researchers determine the cause of the cancer, whether by virus infection or genetic background. The results of the research are expected to be released by the end of the year, the study noted.

The mummy, brought to Poland in the 19th century, has belonged to the University of Warsaw since 1917 and is displayed in the national museum's ancient art gallery. In 2021, prior research done on the mummy concluded that the woman was pregnant