Elderly leukemia case of history discovered

Bones of a Neolithic skeleton show signs of blood cancer

This 7, 000-year-old skeleton shows signs of leukemia on the right upper arm and sternum. © M. Francken / University of Tübingen
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Blood cancer in the Stone Age: Researchers at Stuttgart have discovered the oldest case of leukemia so far. In the bones of a woman who died 7, 000 years ago, they found traces of bone changes typical of this type of cancer. Another disease as the cause of the anomalies rule out the paleoanthropologists. Whether the farmer's wife from the Neolithic period died of leukemia, however, is not known.

The life of the first farmers in the Neolithic was not easy: the work in the fields was exhausting, the yields are not always rich and the medical supply from today's point of view is inadequate. These harsh living conditions also affected the health of humans - infectious diseases, deficiency symptoms and degenerative changes were not uncommon. No wonder that the first farmers were initially rather sickly and small.

An early representative of the Neolithic peasants also included the skeleton found during excavations in Stuttgart-Mühlhausen. It comes from a 30- to 40-year-old woman, who appears to be quite healthy except for inflammation in the mouth and jaw area - at least at first glance. But that changed when Heike Scherf of the University of Tübingen and her colleagues examined more closely the bones of the 7, 000-year-old skeleton.

Anomalies in the "bone sponge"

They noticed something unusual: "We examined various bones of the skeleton with the help of our high-resolution computer tomograph and found in the right, upper humerus and sternum an unusual loosening of the internal bone tissue, the spongiosa, " reports Scherf. "No other individual showed this significant pattern, although they are from the same site and belong to the same age group."

Malformed cells in the bone marrow of a patient with acute myeloblastic leukemia © Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP)

Normally, the spongy cancellous bone tissue is found in the ends of the long arm and leg bones, but also in the sternum, vertebrae, ribs, skull and pelvis. This "bone sponge" borders on the bone marrow, where the blood-forming stem cells are maturing. However, if there is a degeneration of these precursor cells, then there may be a leukemia. Immature, dysfunctional progenitor cells of the white blood cells multiply, disturb the formation of blood and can also leave their mark on the fine bone structure. display

Oldest case of human history

According to the Paloanthropologists, the findings on the Stone Age woman's bones suggest that she once suffered from leukemia. For other possible causes for these deformations they have excluded by comparative analysis: "The biological age and limiting the findings on humerus and sternum speak against osteoporosis, " says Scherf. Also for an overfunction of the Nebenschilddr se missing typical features.

But this could be the 7, 000-year-old skeleton of the oldest evidence for a leukemia disease in a human. "Whether the woman died of the disease, but we can not determine, " sums up Scherf. The fact that even the people of earlier cultures were suffering from cancer was only proven in 2014 by the 3, 200-year-old skeleton of a, gypter whose bones showed traces of metastases of a soft tissue cancer. The oldest indication of cancer is bone deformity deformity, which researchers discovered on the 120, 000-year-old skeleton of a Neanderthal man.

(Senckenberg Society for Natural Science, 01.09.2015 - NPO)