The first cancer was diagnosed in a dinosaur fossil. (Canadian Press photo).

First cancer diagnosed in dinosaur fossil hints at communal life

First cancer diagnosed in dinosaur fossil hints at communal life

EDMONTON — It’s a diagnosis that took 75 million years.

Canadian researchers who included specialists from surgeons to paleontologists have identified what they say is the first known cancer in a dinosaur. The conclusion not only sheds light on the history of what is still one of humanity’s most feared diseases, but also hints at how the ancient lizards may have lived with — and protected — each other.

“Dinosaurs might seem like these mythical creatures, larger than life and powerful,” said the Royal Ontario Museum’s David Evans, one of the co-authors of a paper on the finding published in The Lancet.

“But they were living, breathing animals that were afflicted with some of the same injuries and diseases that we see in animals and humans today.”

The Centrosaur fossil was originally collected in the 1970s from a bone bed in Alberta’s badlands. The area has provided hundreds of samples of the horned dinosaur.

Paleontologists originally assumed a growth on a leg bone was evidence of a break. That’s where it stayed until a chance conversation between Evans and Mark Crowther, chairman of McMaster University’s medical faculty and a dinosaur enthusiast.

The two got talking about evidence of dino diseases. That led to an expedition to Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum, which has hundreds of fossils that show signs of injury.

The team eventually focused its attention on one fossilized leg bone.

It was examined by cancer specialists, subjected to microscopic analysis and a high-resolution CT X-ray scan.

“This is a bone-forming lesion — it’s laying down bone,” said co-author Seper Ekhtiari, an orthopedic surgery resident at McMaster.

“(That) eliminated infection right away because infection doesn’t form new bone.”

It wasn’t a repaired break either. New bone around fractures forms in predictable layers.

“The bone is very disorganized and doesn’t have any clear pattern,” Ekhtiari said.

The growth extended all the way down the bone, which a fracture scar wouldn’t do. Holes in the fossil suggested large, disorderly blood vessels, which cancerous tissues are known to develop.

Finally, the fossil was compared to a human leg bone with bone cancer.

“It’s striking how similar the microscope slides are,” said Ekhtiari.

The conclusion? Osteosarcoma, a cancer that still afflicts more than three out of every million humans today.

Ekhtiari said the dinosaur was very sick.

“A tumour that had extended this far in a human would almost certainly have metastasized elsewhere. It’s very likely the individual would have been in pain.”

Ekhtiari found himself feeling for his ancient patient.

“We all share a similar body plan and we all share a common ancestor. This would have been a gentle herbivorous animal trying to keep up with the herd.”

And yet, cancer didn’t kill it. Nor did a hungry meat-eating dinosaur preying on the slow and the weak.

Because the fossil was found with so many others, Evans is confident the sick dino died with large numbers of its fellows in a natural event such as a flood, which raises an intriguing possibility.

“We know these dinosaurs were highly social,” he said. ”Many horned dinosaurs lived in big herds. They were often living with members of their extended family.

“There’s a benefit to living with those groups. It wouldn’t be surprising to me that the herd would have protected these sick and weak and lame individuals.

“It would be completely speculative,” Evans said. ”But it wouldn’t be impossible.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2020

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Seper Ekhtiari’s last name.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Central Alberta woman receives North American award for leading Red Deer Regional Health Foundation

Manon Therriault at the Red Deer Regional Health Foundation has always embraced… Continue reading

Families displaced after Red Deer fire Sunday

A structure fire displaced two families in north Red Deer Sunday morning.… Continue reading

End of CERB means uncertainty for some, new system for others

In its place is employment insurance, which the government says the majority of people will go on

The latest numbers on COVID-19 in Canada for Sept. 27

The latest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada as of 4:00… Continue reading

WE Charity controversy prompts examination of group’s overseas footprint

On Sept. 9, WE Charity said it would wind down its Canadian operations

QUIZ: Do you know what’s on TV?

Fall is normally the time when new television shows are released

Nearly 1M who died of COVID-19 also illuminated treatment

The nearly 1 million people around the world who have lost their… Continue reading

Toronto health officer closes 3 restaurants as result of COVID contact tracing

Toronto’s top public health official has ordered the closure of three downtown… Continue reading

Canadian ski resorts wrestle with pandemic-vs.-profit dilemma as COVID-19 persists

CALGARY — Canadian ski resort operators planning for a season that begins… Continue reading

Tenille Townes, Dean Brody and Brett Kissel top nominees at tonight’s CCMA Awards

OTTAWA — Tenille Townes could be lined up for some major wins… Continue reading

Horgan, Wilkinson trade barbs over MSP premiums, health care at campaign stops

TERRACE, B.C. — Health care in the era of COVID-19 took centre… Continue reading

Watchdog to investigate fatal Winnipeg crash that sent two kids to hospital

Winnipeg police say a woman has died and five others — including… Continue reading

The ‘relentless underdog’: Green Leader Sonia Furstenau ready for uphill battle

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau was driving Monday when she turned on the… Continue reading

Mi’kmaq power, inside and beyond Ottawa, stronger than in past fishery battles

HALIFAX — When Jaime Battiste was in his early 20s, cable news… Continue reading

Most Read