Rare Cancer-Like Condition Usually Affecting Children Found in a Dinosaur Fossil

​A rare condition that still affects people today has been discovered in a fossil of a platypus dinosaur that used to live on Earth about 66 million years ago. 

Scientists from the Tev Aviv University have found odd cavities in two tail segments of the hadrosaur, which were discovered at the Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta, Canada. They compared the spine with the skeletons of two humans who were discovered to have suffered from a benign tumor known as LCH, or Langerhans cell histiocytosis​, a rare and usually painful condition that affects children, usually boys.

“Diagnosing diseases in skeletal remains and fossils is complicated as in some cases, different diseases leave similar marks on bones. LCH, however, has a distinctive appearance that fit to the lesions found in the hadrosaur,” said Dr. Hila May, chief of the Biohistory and Evolutionary Medicine Laboratory, at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine.

The First Disease Found in a Dinosaur

The team of scientists utilized powerful, and high-resolution CT scans to assay the creature’s tail fossils.

“New technologies, such as the micro CT scanning, enabled us to examine the … structure of the lesion and reconstruct the overgrowth as well as the blood vessels that fed it,” May explained. “The micro and macro analyses confirmed that it was, in fact, LCH. This is the first time this disease has been identified in a dinosaur.”

In humans, LCH is at times depicted as a rare type of cancer, but May said that there are various views among specialists as to whether it is certainly cancer or not because sometimes, it just passes all of a sudden.

“Most of the LCH-related tumors, which can be very painful, suddenly appear in the bones of children aged 2-10 years. Thankfully, these tumors disappear without intervention in many cases,” she said.

According to the research, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports​, the hadrosaurus would have measured approximately ten meters and had several tons. They used to live in big herds, about 66 to 80 million years ago.

Conditions That Survive Evolution

Similar to humans, dinosaurs got sick, but information regarding the disease in the fossil discoveries, a niche is known as paleopathology, has been sparse. Even so, there is evidence that tyrannosaurids, like T-rex, were affected by gout and that iguanodons may have suffered from osteoarthritis. Cancer was more challenging for researchers to identify, but there is information that dinosaurs would have had the disease, the paper said.

Analyzing disease in fossils, regardless of the species, is a rather difficult assignment, and it is even more challenging when observing animals that went extinct as there is no living encyclopedia.​

The team of scientists said that the discovery could help advance evolutionary medicine, a new department of research that examines the development and pattern of diseases over time.

Considering the fact that many of the conditions humans suffer from are transmitted by animals, May said that learning how they manifest themselves in various groups and survive evolution can help researchers discover new and efficient methods to treat them.

“When we know that a disease is independent of species or time, it means the mechanism that encourages its development is not specific to human behavior and environment; rather [it’s] a basic problem in an organism’s physiology,” May said.

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