updated 10/15/2010 11:51:05 AM ET 2010-10-15T15:51:05

Is the common nature of cancer worldwide purely a man-made phenomenon? That is what some researchers now suggest.

Still, other specialists in cancer and in human fossils have strong doubts about this notion.

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for roughly one in eight of all deaths in 2004, according to the World Health Organization. However, scientists have only found one case of the disease in investigations of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, researcher Rosalie David at the University of Manchester in England said in a statement. (The researchers did not reply to repeated queries made via phone and e-mail.)

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The rarity of cancer in mummies suggests it was scarce in antiquity, and "that cancer-causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization," researcher Michael Zimmerman at Villanova University in Pennsylvania said in a statement. "In an ancient society lacking surgical intervention, evidence of cancer should remain in all cases."

Zimmerman was the first to diagnose cancer in an Egyptian mummy by analyzing its tissues on a microscopic level, identifying rectal cancer in an unnamed mummy who had lived in the Dakhleh Oasis during the Ptolemaic period 1,600 to 1,800 years ago.

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David and Zimmerman also analyzed ancient literature from Egypt and Greece for hints of cancer, as well as medical studies of human and animal remains going back to the age of dinosaurs. They suggested evidence of cancer in animal fossils, non-human primates and early humans was scarce, with a few dozen uncertain examples. As they analyzed ancient literature, they did not find descriptions of operations for breast and other cancers until the 17th century, and the first reports in the scientific literature of distinctive tumors have only occurred in the past 200 years, such as scrotal cancer in chimney sweepers in 1775, nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761 and Hodgkin's disease in 1832.

One possible reason cancers might have been comparatively rare in antiquity is that the short life span of individuals back then precluded the development of the disease. Still, the researchers did note some people in ancient Egypt and Greece did live long enough to develop such diseases as atherosclerosis, Paget's disease of bone, and osteoporosis.

'Sin' of modern societies
David and Zimmerman therefore argue that cancer nowadays is largely caused by man-made environmental factors such as pollution and diet. They detailed their findings in the October issue of the journal Nature Reviews Cancer.

"In industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death, but in ancient times, it was extremely rare," David said in a statement. "There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer."

Despite that statement, dinosaurs did develop cancer well before humans were on the scene. Also, others argue the short life spans of antiquity could be a profoundly effective reason as to why cancer might have been rare then.

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"Cancer is very rare in modern societies in humans under age 30," oncologist Dr. John Glaspy at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center told LiveScience. "In ancient times, people rarely lived to be much older than that. So cancer was rare. The 'sin' of modern societies is having people live to be much older."

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Another concern when examining the fossil record is that skeletal remains might not preserve cancers very well. "To see cancers with the skeletal record, you really have to have a tumor that's affecting bone," paleoanthropologist John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin at Madison said in a phone interview. "Although there might be few confirmed diagnoses of tumors in bones, it's because cancer is a difficult diagnosis to make from bone."

Hawks did note that modern lifestyles could certainly lead to much higher rates of cancer than in the past, but not necessarily due to pollution.

"When it comes to cancers such as breast cancer, we know the age that a woman first has children or not makes a lot of difference in whether they get breast cancer, and back then people had children early, which would have put them into a lower-risk category," Hawks said.


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Video: Is cancer man-made?

  1. Closed captioning of: Is cancer man-made?

    >>> been affected one way or another by cancer . you see the pink wall behind me. we put it there because it's breast cancer awareness month. now there's a fascinating new study that looked at almost 1,000 mummies and found that only a couple had any signs of tumors and what that's leading them to suggest is that it's modern lifestyles and pollution that may be the cause of cancers. dr. mark lip man is a world renowned unkolth at the university of miami 's miller school of medicine . doctor, thank you for joining us. i found it fascinating. what do you think about this study?

    >> it's extremely interesting, but there's a bit of misleading information. the problem is all of these mummies died young. cancer a disease that comes on as we get older. there's no doubt that the environment is responsible for most human cancers. absolutely true. the single greatest cause of cancer in human beings is due to an environmental factor , and that factor is cigarette smoke.

    >> let's look at the major causes of cancer here. cause of death in the united states . heart disease is number one. we see again cancer number two. is there -- does it seem to be --

    >> you look at this study in relationship to the other body of research out there. do we know a lot more about environmental causes , about things like pollution, the things that we eat?

    >> well, i know people want to think that there's a simple solution, that it's ooh minor pollutant or something in the air or food that's causing most cancer . i'm afraid it's not true. half of all cancer is caused by cigarette smoke. the other major cause is nutrition but not because of some minor component. we are bigger, we are fatter, we are larger, and that's the major cause of breast cancer . in country where people only got to be five feet tall and weighed 100 pounds, there was 1/10 as much breast cancer . the same is true for prostate cancer . pollution is important. i don't want to say it isn't. but it really isn't the major cause, environmental cause of cancer .

    >> there was an interesting statement because what you said at the beginning that a lot of these mummies obviously were young people , that they died much younger. they said they did find examples of modern-day problems. they found related diseases such as hardening of the arteries , examples of arthritis which they say actually dismisses the argument of the fact that the reason that they didn't find more examples of tumors was because these mummies were all young. you don't buy that?

    >> not completely. look around you now. ask how many people that you know who are 30 or 40 have colon cancer or prostate cancer . these are diseases that increase remarkably as we get older. there's a huge success story here. heart disease is dropping in terms of incidence rates. we keep people alive wonderfully with heart disease . if you live longer, i hate to put it this way, no one gets out of this place alive. there's more cancer . i'm not dismissing what these authors have said. i hope you won't veer away from what i'm saying about cigarette smoking . bladder, paning yas, head and neck, tonsil, tongue and lung are all caused by cigarettes.

    >> dr. marc lippman, great talking


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