Dr. Mislav Cavka
Researchers examined a 2,900-year-old mummy using X-rays, CT and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. They found that he suffered from Hand-Schuller-Christian’s disease, a very rare condition that left him with lesions in his skull and spine. A large hole on his frontal-parietal bone can be readily seen in this image.
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updated 4/27/2012 2:00:19 PM ET 2012-04-27T18:00:19

Around 2,900 years ago, an ancient Egyptian man, likely in his 20s, passed away after suffering from a rare, cancerlike disease that may also have left him with a type of diabetes.

When he died he was mummified, following the procedure of the time. The embalmers removed his brain (through the nose, it appears), poured resin-like fluid into his head and pelvis, took out some of his organs and inserted four linen “packets” into his body. At some point the mummy was transferred to the 2,300-year-old sarcophagus of a woman named Kareset, an artifact that is now in the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia.

The mummy transfer may have been the work of 19th-century antiquity traders keen on selling Kareset's coffin but wanting to have a mummy inside to raise the price.

Until now, scientists had assumed a female mummy was inside the Egyptian coffin. The new research reveals not only that the body does not belong to Kareset, but the male mummy inside was sick. His body showed telltale signs that he suffered from Hand-Schuller-Christian disease, an enigmatic condition in which Langerhans cells, a type of immune cell found in the skin, multiply rapidly. [See Photos of the Sick Male Mummy]

"They tend to replace normal structure of the bone and all other soft tissues," Dr. Mislav Cavka, a medical doctor at the University of Zagreb who is one of the study's leaders, said in an interview with LiveScience. "We could say it is one sort of cancer."

Scientists still aren't sure what causes the disease, but it is very rare, affecting about one in 560,000 young adults, more often males. "In ancient times it was lethal, always," said Cavka, who added that today it can be treated. [Top 10 Mysterious Diseases]

Cavka and colleagues examined the mummy using X-rays, a CT scan and a newly developed technique for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

The disease seems to have taken a terrible toll on the ancient man's body, with images revealing it destroyed parts of his skeleton, leaving lytic lesions throughout his spine and skull. The scans also showed what looks like a giant hole in his skull's frontal-parietal bone, and destruction of a section of one of his eye sockets, known as the "orbital wall."

The mummy-embalming procedure may have worsened some of the disease-caused damage, Cavka said.

Even so, the effects of the disease would have been "very, very painful," and would have affected the man's appearance, particularly in the final stage, Cavka told LiveScience.

Dr. Mislav Cavka
Normally MRI scans can't be used on mummies, because mummy bodies don't have any water in them. A recently developed technique, however, let the researchers use it to study the mummy of an Egyptian man who likely died in his 20s. In this scan it can be seen that the embalmers filled the back of the mummy's head with a resinlike fluid.

In addition, it may have led him to suffer from a form of diabetes. The scans show that his sella turcica, part of the skull that holds the pituitary gland, is shallow, which suggests that this gland was also affected by the disease.

"That could have led to diabetes insipidus," the researchers write in their paper. The condition would have made it difficult for his kidneys to conserve water, something that would have worsened the man's predicament. "Probably he was all the time thirsty, hungry and had to urinate," Cavka said.

Perhaps cold comfort for him now, but his death does offer clues to the ancient world. Scientists have long debated whether or not cancer was common in ancient times.

Some believe that, with lower life expectancies and fewer pollutants, cancer's prevalence was very low. On the other hand, some scholars believe cancer was more common than thought, but simply very hard to detect in ancient remains.

The researchers point out this mummy is the third known case of Hand-Schuller-Christian's disease from ancient Egypt, suggesting the condition was as common among the ancients as it is today. "Tumors are not diseases of the new age," Cavka said.

The new findings are detailed in the most recent issue of the journal Collegium Antropologicum.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Chilling tales of real-life mummies

  • Universal

    In "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," Han, the Dragon Emperor, wakes from a 2,000-year-old curse and threatens to plunge the world into his unending, merciless service. Explorer Rick O'Connell and his family battle the resurrected mummy from the catacombs of ancient China into the frigid Himalayas. The movie is pure fiction, inspired by the famous terracotta army that guards the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. Real-life mummies have fascinated the public for decades — often with their own horrific tales. Click on the "Next" label to learn about eight of their stories.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • King Tut exposed for the world to see

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    The mummy of King Tutankhamun, the 19-year-old pharaoh whose life and death have captivated audiences ever since his gilded tomb was discovered in 1922, went on public display for the first time in November 2007. He was placed in a climate-controlled box in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Tut's blackened, leathery face and feet, shown here, poke out from a linen covering. CT scans of his body in 2005 ruled out murder as the cause of his death in 1323 B.C. More likely, archaeologists said, was a broken left thigh bone that may have caused a fatal infection.

  • Ramses II's hair found for sale on the Internet

    Ben Curtis  /  AP

    How much is the lock of hair in this photo from the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II worth? According to Frenchman Jean-Michel Diebolt, the answer is about $2,600. He put the locks, along with some linen bandages and resins used in the mummification of Ramses II, up for sale on the Internet. Diebolt's late father, a French researcher, had examined the mummy in 1976 and apparently kept the mementos. Egyptian antiquities officials retrieved the lost artifacts in April 2007. Ramses II ruled from 1270 to 1213 B.C. and is celebrated as one of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs. His legacy includes some of Egypt's grandest monuments, including the Ramesseum temple complex.

  • Mummy of Queen Hatshepsut found?

    Nasser Nuri  /  Reuters

    Queen Hatshepsut ruled ancient Egypt for about 20 years as a female pharaoh after she stole the throne from her young stepson, Thutmose III. But after her death, in 1458 B.C., all trace of her name was obliterated from the records in what archaeologists believe was an act of revenge by her stepson. In June 2007, Egyptian authorities announced the mummy in this picture, unearthed a century ago, is the long-lost queen. The claim was based primarily on CT scans that showed, for example, a gap in her mouth matches a tooth in a jar with her insignia on it.

  • Chinchorro were the first to mummify their dead

    Image: mummified Chinchorro baby
    Ivan Alvarado  /  Corbis

    In the arid coastal stretches of modern-day Chile and Peru, an ancient fisherfolk known as the Chinchorro took the mummification of their dead seriously and spared no one from the practice. They were the first culture known to purposely preserve their dead — the earliest examples date to around 5000 B.C. All members of society, from the elite to children and miscarried fetuses, were mummified. The technique changed over the years, but internal organs were commonly removed and replaced with vegetable fiber and hair.

  • Were Incan children fattened up and sacrificed?

    Natacha Pisarenko  /  AP

    The 15-year-old girl known as "La Doncella," shown here in a photo from a museum in Salta, Argentina, along with a 6-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy, were apparently "fattened up" before being sacrificed at the top of the Llullaillaco volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile, according a recent analysis of hair samples found with their mummified remains. In the months before their deaths, more than 500 years ago, their diet shifted from potato to corn and perhaps llama meat — an indication of elevated status. The mummies, called the Children of Llullaillaco, were dressed in fine clothes and given corn alcohol before they were left to die on the 22,080-foot volcano.

  • Ice Maiden found inside Peruvian volcano

    Joyce Naltchayan  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Hailed by Time magazine as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries in 1995, Juanita, the Ice Maiden, remains one of the most spectacular mummies ever found. Anthropologist Johan Reinhard and climbing partner Miguel Zarate uncovered the 12- to 14-year-old girl from the crater of Mt. Ampato, a Peruvian volcano. She was apparently sacrificed by Inca priests to appease the gods sometime between 1440 and 1450. There she froze, her body preserved for 500 years.

  • Oetzi the Iceman murder mystery solved?

    South Tyrol Museum Of Archaeology  /  AP

    How did Oetzi the Iceman, seen in this photo from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy, die? According a story patched together from a pair of detailed examinations published in 2007, the 5,000-year-old mummy most likely took a fatal blow to the head after an arrow lacerated an artery below his left collarbone. Hikers in 1991 discovered Oetzi in the Italian Alps, face down with his left arm across his chest. Scientists believe he fell backwards, but was rolled over by his attacker who pulled out the arrow, leaving the arrowhead imbedded in Oetzi's shoulder.

  • Lindow Man, Britain's best bog body

    Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

    In August 1984, workers cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in northwest England hit upon the well-preserved body of a man, about the age of 25, who died sometime between A.D. 20 and 90. Lindow Man, as he became known, is Britain's best known bog body, one of several dead people kept remarkably intact due to the acidity, cold temperature and lack of oxygen in the bogs. Detailed studies of Lindow Man conducted at the British Museum suggest he died a horrific death. He shows evidence of two blows to the head and a third to the back. He was then strangled with a thin cord that snapped his neck, had his throat cut and was placed face down in the bog. Some scientists suspect this was a ritualistic killing.

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