Could a Mummy Hold the Key to An Arthritis Cure?

“Arthritis” is not only an ancient word – it’s also an ancient disease. Before humans even existed, dinosaurs may have dealt with arthritis. A team of researchers from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom found an “arthritis-like” condition in the 150-million-year-old remains of a dinosaur called Pliosaur. Dinosaur bones from 90 million years ago unearthed near Brussels, Belgium, identified as Igoaunodon bones, showed evidence of osteoarthritis (OA) in multiple fossils. Arthritis has also been identified in skeletons of the Tyrannosaurus rex.

RA in the stone age?

As for humans, signs of arthritis are first visible in the remains of our Neanderthal cousins, who lived 250,000 to 35,000 years ago. Joint erosion consistent with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has been found in the remains of Native Americans in what is now Tennessee, from as far back as 4500 BC. There is also historical evidence that the concept of arthritis may have existed even in the early centuries of Egyptian civilization.

Arthritis was also one of the earliest disorders to be clinically identified and characterized by ancient healers. References to arthritis are found in texts as far back as 4500 BC, and a text from 123 AD first describes symptoms that appear similar to rheumatoid arthritis. A quote from Hippocrates from over 2,300 years ago – “it is incredible how fast the mischief spreads” – may have been referring to RA. Hippocrates also spoke of gout, another form of arthritis.

A mummy that could potentially have had RA?

Now scientists are studying a mummified body that was discovered in a convent in the town of Guano, Ecuador. The mummy, whose remains date back to the 16th century, was discovered in a large jar after a massive earthquake in August 1949 caused damage to the church’s walls. Researchers believe the mummy was 85 or 90 when he died and was likely a friar and guardian of the convent where his remains were found. The mummy was in a large jar between the convent’s walls, and since it was stored in a cold, dry environment, protected from flies and larvae, the body is well-preserved.

When scientists examined the mummy in January 2019, they determined that its tissues and bones bear the marks of rheumatoid arthritis. The mummy’s hands and feet also show deformations that are typical of RA. Led by French pathologist Dr. Philippe Charlier, the scientists believe this mummy might have the potential to help them understand how RA, which originated in America, became a global disease. Dr. Charlier and his team also believe that further examination of this mummy could uncover a missing link that allows scientists to better understand the origin and natural history of RA.

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