Bone cancer has hit the headlines with the discovery of the earliest evidence of cancer in the human fossil record.

The aggressive tumour was found in a 1.7 million-year-old toe from an ancient human ancestor – and an international team of scientists say that this data shows the fossil metatarsal bone had osteosarcoma. Read the original journal detailing the finding here.

Our comment about the implications of this finding for primary bone cancer research today was featured on BBC News, New Scientist, The Independent, Daily Mirror, and several other newspapers.

Can the past help the present? We caught up with two of our researchers to hear their take on the news

Professor Donald Salter, University of Edinburgh

The recent discovery, by a team of South African scientists, of the presence of a bone tumour, likely to be an osteosarcoma, in a foot bone of an early human ancestor is believed to be the earliest identifiable case of cancer. This unique case in a specimen dated from an early human ancestor dated to more than 1.6 million years old indicates that bone cancer, although a relatively uncommon condition, has been prevalent for millennia.
Osteosarcomas consist of abnormal bone forming cells whose growth is uncontrolled. As the tumour cells grow they destroy the normal bone but also produce ‘abnormal bone’. This abnormal bone was identified in the archaeological specimen. As the osteosarcoma grows patients will often present with pain as the abnormal bone is weak and may fracture, a palpable lump or unexplained limp. It would be expected that the human ancestor with the osteosarcoma in the foot bone would have had similar symptoms and signs.

Professor Dominique Heymann, University of Sheffield

Osteosarcoma originates from a bone cell, and is a rare malignant primary bone tumour affecting mainly adolescents and young adults. Despite several genetic alterations having been described in cancer cells, most osteosarcoma patients do not have any substantial risk factors.

Osteosarcoma is not a recent disease; bone tumours including osteosarcoma have been previously reported in mummies. Furthermore, osteosarcoma is not restricted to human species alone, and giant dogs which have physiological fast growth (Leonberg, Irish Wolfhound, Rottweillers, Great Danes…) are particularly prone to the development of osteosarcoma. Interestingly, bone tumours have been discovered on bones of dinosaurs who lived on earth on the Jurassic era (200 to 140 millions years ago). These discoveries strengthen the hypothesis of a potential relationship between speed of bone growth and osteosarcoma development.

There is a lot of evidence that our lifestyle may impact the occurrence of cancers. This ancestral bony tumour demonstrates that osteosarcoma is not a “modern” cancer and consequently is not directly related to our lifestyle. However, even if the cause of osteosarcoma seems independent of our lifestyle, we can not exclude a contribution of our industrial environment in its development and progression.

The decoding of ancestral biological mechanisms will be our next challenge and will lead to a better knowledge of osteosarcoma biology and help to define new therapeutic approaches.