JUL 29, 2016 7:44 AM PDT

Paleo Diet Apparently Not Enough to Prevent Cancer

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
Cancer is thought to be an affliction of modern age – a result of exposure to environmental and dietary carcinogens that were absent for our prehistoric relatives. However, two recent discoveries have upturned this notion completely – cancer appears to have plagued our ancestors as far back as 2 million years ago.
 
Million year old fossilized cancer in metatarsals | Image:  Edward Odes (Wits)
Scientists from the University of the Witwatersrand's Evolutionary Studies Institute and the South African Centre for Excellence in PalaeoSciences published two consecutive papers that described bone cancer in a 1.7 million year old foot fragment and a 2 million year old vertebrae.
 
In the first case, the bone cancer in the metatarsal of foot fragment came from the site of Swartkrans in South Africa. Because it was a fragment, the scientists can only conclude that belonged to a hominin species, a bipedal human relative. "Due to its preservation, we don't know whether the single cancerous foot bone belongs to an adult or child, nor whether the cancer caused the death of this individual, but we can tell this would have affected the individuals' ability to walk or run," said Bernhard Zipfel, a Wits scientist who specializes in feet and locomotion of early human species. "In short, it would have been painful."
 
In the second case, scientists found evidence of bone cancer in a vertebrae of an Australopithecus sediba child, from Malapa in South Africa. “The presence of a benign tumor in Australopithecus sediba is fascinating not only because it is found in the back, an extremely rare place for such a disease to manifest in modern humans, but also because it is found in a child. This, in fact, is the first evidence of such a disease in a young individual in the whole of the fossil human record,” said Patrick Randolph-Quinney, a Wits scientist and an author of both published papers.
 

 Before this discovery, the oldest archeological record of cancer dated back to 120,000 years ago. Now, this evidence has completely blasted the timeline of cancer to millions of years ago, indicating this disease is not exclusive to modern times.
 
"Modern medicine tends to assume that cancers and tumors in humans are diseases caused by modern lifestyles and environments. Our studies show the origins of these diseases occurred in our ancient relatives millions of years before modern industrial societies existed,” said Edward Odes, an author of both papers.
 
What does prehistoric bone cancer look like? Surprisingly, much like what bone cancer looks like now. "We tested this particular bone with a known modern human osteosarcoma specimen, and it looked identical," said Odes. "Millions of years old, and you wouldn't be able to tell it apart."
 
That osteosarcoma hasn’t shown major signs of evolutionary changes over such a long period of time is perplexing. But it could potentially serve as a clue to which genes are involved in this cancer. Furthermore, finding out why these genes haven’t been subjected to evolutionary pressure may expand our knowledge on how these cancers begin.
 
What’s clear from the discoveries is that cancers and tumors are more complex beyond what we previously imagined. And for better or for worse, it appears that cancer isn’t a byproduct of industrialization. As Quinney wrote, “Even if we have very healthy, perfect lifestyles we still have the capacity for cancer. It is an inherent part of our evolutionary process."

Additional sources: Wits press release, CNN
 
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
OCT 15, 2020
Cancer
How is mole growth really associated to skin cancer?
OCT 15, 2020
How is mole growth really associated to skin cancer?
New research published in the journal eLife questions the way we think about skin cancer. Focused on mole growth, the st ...
OCT 20, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
Non-coding RNA As A Barometer For Liver Health
OCT 20, 2020
Non-coding RNA As A Barometer For Liver Health
October is liver cancer awareness month — a month dedicated to educating people about the risk factors and prevent ...
OCT 23, 2020
Cancer
#BCSM helps physicians understand patients' needs outside the clinical setting
OCT 23, 2020
#BCSM helps physicians understand patients' needs outside the clinical setting
A new study from UCLA published in the Journal of Patient-Centered Research and Review suggests that social media can be ...
OCT 26, 2020
Cancer
Attacking leukemia trojan horse style
OCT 26, 2020
Attacking leukemia trojan horse style
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry have developed a new approach to targeting leukemic stem cells ...
OCT 30, 2020
Cancer
Fighting mesothelioma with curcumin
OCT 30, 2020
Fighting mesothelioma with curcumin
Research led by investigators at Flinders University in Australia is spearheading new developments in cancer prevention ...
NOV 14, 2020
Cancer
New intravenous anti-cancer therapy crosses blood-brain barrier
NOV 14, 2020
New intravenous anti-cancer therapy crosses blood-brain barrier
New research from the University of Michigan reports for the first time a new synthetic protein nanoparticle that is abl ...
Loading Comments...