Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Old Bones

Evidence of cancer in an ancient turtle fossil

21 March 2019

Old Bones

Causing an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018, cancer is one of the most significant health concerns worldwide. While we generally focus on modern behaviours increasing the risk of cancer, such as smoking or exposure to pollutants, this disease has an ancient origin. Scientists recently discovered evidence of cancer in a 240-million-year-old fossil of an extinct relative of turtles, Pappochelys rosinae (pictured), making it the oldest known case in an amniote, the group of vertebrates including reptiles, birds and mammals. Pappochelys fossils helped palaeontologists shed light on how turtles evolved shells, but a suspicious growth on one specimen’s femur also caught their attention. Micro CT scans revealed a bone tumour closely resembling periosteal osteosarcoma, a bone cancer found in humans. While most tumours develop in soft tissues, so are not preserved in the fossil record, this discovery highlights the ancient nature of the genetic and cellular processes underpinning this disease.

Written by Emmanuelle Briolat

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