Anchorage Scientist Studies Ancient Cancer For Clues To Modern Disease

Cancer is often described as a modern disease. But the skeletal remains of our ancient ancestors are marked by the ravages of cancer. And an Anchorage scientist- who’s a cancer survivor, thinks those prehistoric bones could hold clues to understanding how the disease works today. It’s an emerging field though, that has some critics. 

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Paleo-oncologist Katie Hunt. Photo by Annie Feidt.
Paleo-oncologist Katie Hunt. Photo by Annie Feidt.

This is what happens when Katie Hunt tells people what she does for work:

“I get a lot of head nodding and then confusion.”

Hunt is a new kind of scientist. She studies ancient cancer.

In 2012, she co-founded the Paleo-oncology Research Organization. The group wants to develop standards for detecting and diagnosing cancer in ancient skeletons. Hunt is convinced tracking the evolution of the disease will help scientists understand modern cancer.

“We basically have a lot of information from the last 70 years or so. But can you imagine what it would be like to document cancer from the last ten thousand years?”

As a kid Hunt was obsessed with archaeology. She filled binders with her favorite National Geographic stories on ancient worlds. At the end of her sophomore year in college in Washington state, Hunt went on her first dig in Egypt. She spent five weeks excavating a site in the Nile Delta where an ancient beer factory had been built inside a temple:

“Because the priests were paid in beer, food and beer.”

In the rubble of the beer factory, Hunt came across a single burial site. She carefully preserved a layer of pure white matting. Then she brushed away the dirt to reveal a partial skeleton from a woman who lived roughly five thousand years ago. It was the moment she knew she wanted to study human remains:

“I got very excited and it was just kind of this suddenly, like oh, this is what I’m supposed to do in archaeology, this is why I’m so drawn to archaeology.”

At the time, Hunt didn’t even know the field of paleopathology existed. But she wanted to know more about how this woman lived and why she died. She went back and forth to Egypt, and started learning how to study disease and trauma in ancient skeletons.

Then life interrupted.

At the end of the school year in 2009, Hunt had bloating and swelling in her stomach, with some intense pain. She assumed it was a stress induced ulcer:

“Things just got so bad that I ended up going into the emergency room and they discovered the tumor.”

After emergency surgery, doctors told Hunt she had a rare and aggressive type of ovarian cancer. She was just 22 years old. Hunt spent the summer enduring a series of marathon inpatient chemotherapy sessions.

The treatment worked. In October, a month after she finished chemotherapy, Hunt went back to Egypt for more field work. This time she was working in the Valley of the Kings, analyzing the bones of several skeletons that suffered from a mysterious disease:

“That was kind of that moment where I was like, what if cancer did exist in ancient societies and if it did, how did they deal with it?”

Holes that are evidence of cancer in an ancient skeleton from Sudan. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum
Holes that are evidence of cancer in an ancient skeleton from Sudan. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum

The skeletons didn’t turn out to have cancer. But the experience prompted Hunt to write an undergraduate thesis showing cancer did exist in ancient times- Hippocrates wrote about it and even gave cancer its name. She wanted to turn that research into something more tangible and actually find cancer in skeletal remains. When the disease metastasizes to the bone, it leaves behind either holes or a buildup on the skeleton.

Hunt enrolled in graduate school in paleopathology in England with a focus on ancient cancers:

“Almost nothing had been done up to that point.”

But there were some documented cases of cancer in skeletal remains. Hunt spent two years compiling every ancient cancer case study she could find into a database. In all, she came across 230 individuals who likely had cancer. Hunt wants to use the database to develop standards for diagnosing ancient cancers.

She thinks paleo-oncology is key to tracing how cancer developed through big events in human history, like the transition to agricultural societies:

“If we are able to document cancer through that time period we might be able to see changes in how it was manifested in the human body. So tracing those and understanding the development of cancer through these big periods can really help us understand the causes of cancer today.”

Hunt is getting a lot of attention for her work. She gave a TED talk in Vancouver in March. And earlier this month, Fast Company put her on it’s list of the 100 most creative people in business. But she has critics too.

“Paleo-oncology is not going to help us understand how to diagnose or treat  modern cases of cancer. It just won’t.”

Robert Weinberg is a professor and cancer researcher at MIT who wrote a book on cancer biology. He’s worried paleo-oncology will draw public funding away from research that holds more promise. He says a lot of cancers aren’t preserved in skeletons:

“Cancer is ultimately a disease of living tissues and you can’t study old bones to understand the origins of those cancers and how they actually formed.”

Hunt says finding cellular evidence of cancer in skeletons is difficult. But she says newer technology like next generation DNA sequencing is making it possible. And she expects new techniques in development will make it even easier down the road.

Still, she understands the criticism and even welcomes it. But Hunt is determined to prove the potential of paleo-oncology.

Right now, the field is tiny. Like, fit inside a compact car tiny:

Reporter: “So how many people?”

Hunt: “Maybe three or four right now.”

Reporter: “So you’re saying you’re one of three or four people in the world who are doing this?”

Hunt: “Who are doing primarily this.”

For now, Hunt is okay with tiny. She’s riding a wave of momentum that has her dreaming big about what her organization can accomplish in the next few decades. Her main goal is to persuade more archaeologists to think about the possibility of cancer when they’re examining skeletal remains.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.