Scientists study mummies to help the living

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Wow, even though this person isn’t alive, he looks a little scared of going to the doctor. Or, maybe he’s just in pain – he sure does look a little cramped in that contraption!

Usually, when researchers want to study how diseases affect individuals, they run trials on living organisms. You know, taking warm blood samples… measuring thumping heartbeats.

If that’s the case, then why are researchers running tests on dead, well-preserved mummies? Apparently, these ancient diseased corpses hold secrets that can heal walking, talking… breathing people!

Basically, when researchers find an old version of a disease and compare it to the newer strains that exist today, they can identify how it’s evolved over time, what makes it so dangerous, and possibly how to stop it.

For example, scientists from Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute studied around 130 mummies from Egypt, Peru, and other locations around the globe. After x-raying the bodies, they found that a high percentage suffered from athero­sclerosis – a deadly disease where arteries get clogged with substances like fat. This is bad because if a vessel gets blocked, the blood can’t get to where it’s needed the most! Researchers used to think the condition was caused by certain behaviors like overeating and lack of exercise. However, since athero­sclerosis is showing up in old mummies, scientists realized the disease is genetic (passed on from parents).

Peeking into the past also sheds light on what conditions make diseases worse. Take tuberculosis (TB) for example, which is a bacterial disease that infects lungs. If the sickness is left untreated, it eventually spreads throughout the body and interrupts important functions.  Now, researchers used to think that early European settlers brought the disease to North, Central, and South America. However, after scanning the mummies, biologist Haagen Klaus and his team from George Mason University found evidence that TB existed in the Americas around the 10th century, well before the Europeans came. Klaus suspects the ancients never showed symptoms because they had diets low in iron. Just this little tidbit of information can lead to a major breakthrough with drugs that block iron intake in the body.

There are several more examples of how individuals from the past are shaping today’s treatments. The sad part? Finding well-preserved mummies is no easy task! They tend to, you know, fall apart after a while. However, as medical technology continues to advance, researchers will be able to discover more information with less bodies!

Images courtesy of Siemens.