Egyptian mummy

André/Wikimedia Commons

To study ancient cancer, this scientist made her own mummies

LIMA—Ancient Egyptians suffered from many of the same health problems that still plague us today, from heart disease to cancer. That makes their mummies potentially valuable sources of information about the history of those diseases. But when it comes to cancer, there’s a problem: No one knows for certain what a mummified tumor looks like. So one scientist set out to catalog the traits of dried-out tumors by making her own. Jennifer Willoughby, a doctoral student in bioarchaeology at Western University in London, Canada, convinced a cancer lab to send her a handful of recently deceased mice, most with tumors and a few without. Some she buried in sand in a hot terrarium, to mimic bodies naturally preserved in dry desert environments. Others got the full Ancient Egyptian treatment. Willoughby carefully removed their internal organs, minus the brain (which she couldn’t get out through their tiny noses), and then filled their abdomens and covered their bodies with natron, a dehydrating chemical used by the Ancient Egyptians. After 50 days of drying, Willoughby dipped the second set of mice in pine resin and wrapped them in linen bandages sealed with beeswax. As a final touch, she anointed them with frankincense and myrrh and said a prayer over them, “Ancient Egyptian–style.” When she later looked at both groups of mice in a computed tomography scanner, their tumors were obvious, Willoughby reported last week at the World Congress of Mummy Studies here. Compared with other soft tissues, including internal organs, the tumors appeared much more solid, and they interacted differently with the x-rays. The finding means that researchers—including Willoughby—can soon start systematically searching for tumors in Ancient Egyptian human mummies. Fortunately, they won’t have to create those mummies themselves.