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Saturday, March 6, 1999 Published at 02:03 GMT


Desert mummies linked to modern medicine

Desert environments keep mummies' cells intact

South American mummies could hold the key to modern diseases, according to a leading paleopathologist.

Dr Marvin Allison of the Medical College of Virginia, a leading paleopathologist, has been studying the mummies for 30 years.

He says that in around 95% of cases scientists can tell what the mummies died from.

"That's about the modern rate," he stated.

The information could provide answers about the way many of today's diseases have developed.

Dr Allison says one of the main problems in doing autopsies on mummies is that some of their cell material does not survive longer than 8,000 years.

"We use the same techniques as any modern hospital," he said.

Stool samples

Many of the mummies Dr Allison has studied are from Chile's Atacama desert.

The environment there is dry and hot and this helps preserve the mummies.

He has recently done research into stool material from 30 mummies which are up to 1,800 years old.

He found that six were infected with a bug called Helicobacter pylori.

It has been linked to stomach cancer and ulcers.

The bug, which lives in the stomach lining, was only identified around 10 years ago and doctors are not yet certain how it is spread.

Dr Allison, who has conducted around 3,000 autopsies during his career, used a relatively new technique to test the stool samples.

The Premier Platinum HpSA test is about 96% accurate, according to its manufacturer.

He is now looking for evidence of infection by cryptosporidium and giardia, two water-borne bacteria which still cause deaths today.

Ancient tissue

Other teams have also been studying mummies for clues which could help the development of modern medicine.

A US, UK and Egyptian team is examining the 5,000-year progress of a disease prevalent in Egypt.

Using tissue samples from mummified bodies, the team is tracing the development of schistasomiasis, a chronic debilitating disease, caused by a parasite called a schistasome.

The disease, which has minor symptoms in the short term but can cause death after repeated exposure, has been detected in mummies from 2,800BC.

Dr Rosalie David, keeper of Egyptology at Manchester University, also applies modern techniques to examine ancient tissue and establish what diseases affected people in the distant past.

Disrupting life

They have found that many familiar diseases affected the ancient Egyptians - obesity, osteoarthritis, slipped discs, blocked arteries and pleurisy.

But the researchers particularly want to track the progress of schistasomiasis.

The disease is estimated to affect 200-300 million people in 79 countries. In some Egyptian villages it can affect as much as 80% of the population.

The disease can have a major impact on an agricultural workforce as well as a nation's economy.

The researchers hope they can work out how the disease has been so successful at disrupting human life by studying the progression of the disease and its cause over a period of 5,000 years.

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