Video: Researchers Discover Malignant Cancer Diagnosed in a Dinosaur for the First Time

Tuesday, August 4, 2020 - 10:22
Dinosaur

Researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in cooperation with McMaster University have led to the discovery and diagnosis of an aggressive malignant bone cancer, an osteosarcoma, for the first time ever in a dinosaur.

No malignant cancers (tumours that can spread throughout the body and have severe health implications) have ever been documented in dinosaurs previously, phys.org reports. The paper was published August 3rd in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet Oncology.

The cancerous bone in question is the fibula (lower leg bone) from Centrosaurus apertus, a horned dinosaur that lived 76 to 77 million years ago. Originally discovered in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta in 1989, the badly malformed end of the fossil was originally thought to represent a healing fracture.

Noting the unusual properties of the bone on a trip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in 2017, Dr. David Evans, James and Louise Temerty Endowed Chair of Vertebrate Palaeontology from the ROM, and Drs. Mark Crowther, Professor of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, and Snezana Popovic, an osteopathologist, both at McMaster University, decided to investigate it further using modern medical techniques.

They assembled a team of multidisciplinary specialists and medical professionals from fields including pathology, radiology, orthopaedic surgery, and palaeopathology. The team re-evaluated the bone and approached the diagnosis similarly to how it would be approached for the diagnosis of an unknown tumor in a human patient.

"Diagnosis of aggressive cancer like this in dinosaurs has been elusive and requires medical expertise and multiple levels of analysis to properly identify," says Crowther, who is also a Royal Patrons Circle donor and volunteer at the ROM. "Here, we show the unmistakable signature of advanced bone cancer in 76-million-year-old horned dinosaur—the first of its kind. It's very exciting."

To confirm this diagnosis, they compared the fossil to a normal fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, as well as to a human fibula with a confirmed case of osteosarcoma. The fossil specimen is from an adult dinosaur with an advanced stage of cancer that may have invaded other body systems. Yet it was found in a massive bonebed, suggesting it died as part of a large herd of Centrosaurus struck down by a flood.

This study aims to establish a new standard for the diagnosis of unclear diseases in dinosaur fossils and opens the door to more precise and more certain diagnoses. Establishing links between human disease and the diseases of the past will help scientists to gain a better understanding of the evolution and genetics of various diseases.

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