Malignant cancer found in dinosaur fossil for the first time

Hyperaxion Aug 5, 2020

The animal lived 76 million years ago and was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a type of cancer that also affects humans.

Researchers at the Royal Ontario Museum in partnership with McMaster University, both in Canada, found, for the first time, malignant bone cancer in a dinosaur fossil. The study was published in the journal The Lancet Oncology this week.

Malignant cancer found in dinosaur fossil for the first time
(Credit: Royal Ontario Museum and McMaster University).

The animal belonged to the species Centrosaurus apertus and was discovered in Alberta, Canada, in 1989. One of the characteristics that caught the attention of the researchers was what appeared to be a healing fracture in one of the bones.

In 2017, scientists decided to investigate it using modern analytical techniques: they brought together a team of multidisciplinary specialists and medical professionals from fields such as pathology, radiology, orthopedic surgery, and paleopathology.

The group examined the bone, performed high-resolution CT scans, and used reconstruction tools to visualize the progression of the cancer.

Through this rigorous process, the researchers concluded that it was osteosarcoma – a bone cancer that spreads quickly, both in the bone in which it originates and in other organs, including the lung.

“Diagnosis of aggressive cancer like this in dinosaurs has been elusive and requires medical expertise and multiple levels of analysis to properly identify,” said coauthor Mark Crowther, professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University. “Here, we show the unmistakable signature of advanced bone cancer in 76-million-year-old horned dinosaur — the first of its kind. It’s very exciting.”

To confirm the diagnosis, they compared the fossil to a normal bone from a dinosaur of the same species, as well as to a human fibula with a confirmed case of osteosarcoma.

Although the fossil is from an adult dinosaur with an advanced stage of cancer – which may have spread to other parts of the body – scientists believe it died when it was struck down by a flood.

The innovative technique used in the study may also help researchers to find possible links between human diseases and diseases of the past, providing a better view of how the disease evolved.

Evidence of many other diseases that we share with dinosaurs and other extinct animals may still be in museum collections that need to be reexamined.

Related topics:

Cancer dinosaur

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