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A group of Canadian researchers said they discovered the first confirmed case of a malignant cancer dinosaur – by combining prehistoric fossil analysis skills with modern methods of diagnosing humans.
In a study published Monday in The Lancet Oncology medical journal, researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario said the case indicated that malignant tumors, including bone cancer, “The evolutionary history of organisms is deeply rooted in medicine. "
The researchers examined a lower leg bone from Centrosaurus apertus, a horned dinosaur that lived 76 to 77 million years ago. The bone itself was originally discovered in 1989 in the wasteland of Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta, Canada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most fossilized regions in the world.
The bone, which was visibly deformed, caught the researchers' attention on a trip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta in 2017. A team of experts from dinosaur and human pathology, including orthopedists, was put together.
The researchers examined and cast the bone, performed high-resolution CT scans, and cut the bone into extremely thin sections, examining it at the cellular level to monitor the progress of cancer in the bones before the dinosaur was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. The bone was then compared to a normal fibular bone of the same dinosaur type and a human bone to a confirmed case of the same cancer.
Horned dinosaur Centrosaurus apertus shinbone (fibula) with malignant bone cancer (osteosarcoma). Centrosaurus apertus was a herbivorous ceratopsic (horned) dinosaur that lived about 76 million years. This fossil from the Royal Tyrrell Museum collections was originally found in the Dinosaur Park Formation in Alberta, Canada. Centrosaurus diagram by Danielle Dufault. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum / McMaster University.
Osteosarcoma is the most common form of bone cancer in humans and usually occurs in teenagers and young adults, including Canadian runner Terry Fox.
In the thesis, the researchers found that it was previously difficult to find evidence of cancer in dinosaur fossils, not only because soft tissue is lost when the bone is fossilized, but because the bones are often damaged in the process. The rarity and uniqueness of dinosaur bones also delayed researchers from destroying them to conduct tests, they added.
"Diagnosing such aggressive cancer in dinosaurs was difficult to achieve and requires medical expertise and multiple levels of analysis to properly identify it," said Dr. Mark Crowther, professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University, who is also an avowed fan of dinosaurs and a volunteer in ROM.
"Here we show the distinctive signature of advanced bone cancer in a 76 million year old horned dinosaur – the first of its kind. It's very exciting."
The dinosaur's cancer was both aggressive and advanced, said Dr. David Evans, a paleontologist at ROM, and "would have had crippling effects on the individual and made him very vulnerable to the impressive tyrannosaur predators of the time."
He speculated that the large herbivorous Centrosaurus apertus may have been protected by its place in a large, protective herd, so that it could survive much longer than would normally be the case with such a disease.
In the end, the researchers concluded that the cancer – or a tyrannosaurus – is unlikely to have actually killed the dinosaur.
Instead, the discovery in a massive bed of bones alongside other fossils indicated that the dino alongside a large herd was killed by another persistent danger: a flood.
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