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Modern Disease Discovered In Mummies

A team of doctors ran CT scans on 22 Mummies in Cairo last February.
Photo by Dr. Michael Myamoto
A team of doctors ran CT scans on 22 Mummies in Cairo last February.


Kansas City, MO – Cardiovascular diseases affect about one in three adults. The high prevalence, especially in places like the Midwest, is largely attributed to modern diets and lifestyles. But turns out, Egyptians also suffered from heart problems more than 3,000 years ago. Local Cardiologist Randall Thompson discovered this when he and his colleagues ran several mummies through a CAT scan in Cairo earlier this year. Specifically, they identified hardened arteries in 6 of the Mummies they examined. The findings have been published in a research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

KCUR's Elana Gordon recently caught up with Dr. Thompson at the Mid America Heart Institute - where he typically spends his time, you know, examining live patients - to discuss the project.

Slideshow: Examining the Hearts of Mummies

Dr. Randy Thompson says the experience of walking through the near century-old Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, and then running CT scans on some of the mummies there was a little surreal.

"At one point the expedition seemed like the team of Indiana Jones meets Forensics Files," Thompson said. "I was really very odd, very exciting too We were just struck and amazed by the technology that the ancient Egyptians had come up with. And here they had developed a way to preserve the body 3500 years ago or older. And here we're using high technology, we're using our understanding of disease and health and this instrument [CT Scanner] to look across such a long period of time to unlock what had happened to that person."

The idea, Thompson says, all started with the Pharaoh Menepta. Two colleagues of his had previously visited the Museum and were looking at Menepta's display - the description next to it said the Pharaoh had suffered from a number of ailments, including cardiovascular disease.

Thompson said they wanted proof - none of them believed it.

"Well, we think it's a disease of modern lifestyles," Thompson said. "Those ancient Egyptians of course didn't smoke or eat trans fats or sit around watching television, and they should have gotten plenty of exercise. There was no motorized transportation."

So, earlier this year, Thompson teamed up with several researchers from Egypt and the U.S to do the project once they permission from the Egyptian authorities.

Over the course of four days, the group put 22 mummies through a CT scanner that was located in a trailer right behind the museum (Pharaohs were off limits). Now, Cardiologists do CT scans on regular patients all the time, but Thompson says this was nothing like being at a hospital.

"So the scene is not one that's like a hospital diagnostic test. There was a huge crowd of people interested," Thompson said. "As we took the mummies off the shelf, it drew quite a crowd in the museum - because they would take the mummy off the shelf, they would actually open the box, the sarcophagus, to make sure there was a mummy in there."

Thompson says a couple times, the mummies weren't there.

"When when a mummy was found, one that looked appropriate, that seemed to likely be preserved well and to maybe have hardened cardiovascular tissue, a crowd would form," Thompson said. "There were all sorts of children that would run up to the front and stick their faces in and this sort of thing. The team would put the mummy on their shoulders, walk around back, walk out the exit out to the CT scanner."

"Now the trailer has been there for a few years and is starting to list. So we had to use a stick to prop the door shut."

"I've been asked, do these mummies smell? In fact we've got a photograph of a little kid holding his nose as we proceeded by. But the answer is no. Although anything in the basement tends to smell like a basement sometimes. And we did have a little bit of that."

Thompson says they tried to disturb the mummies as little as possible, even when putting them through the scanner. They often kept them in their boxes the whole time. But Thompson says after the first few scans, he wasn't sure they'd find anything.

"Sometimes the pictures would come out and we wouldn't see much. There were 6 of the mummies where we didn't see any cardiovascular tissue," Thompson said. "In fact one of the cardiologists would refer to it as sticks and dust, just really not much to see at all.

Then they came upon the Mummy Esankh - a Priest of Amun from the 18th dynasty.

"He was wrapped in a brown plain wrapping, and apparently had never been analyzed before," Thompson said. "And as we did the CT scan on this fella, having seen 3 or 4 sicks and dust kind of CAT scans, as we looked as this fella's CAT scan, we realized he was not just a priest. He must have been the high priest. He must have been kind of the pope of his era. He had all these artifacts inside the CT scan that had not been discovered."

"That mummy also had part of his aorta present and had hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis in the aorta. And this disease we found, the atherosclerosis, looks just like it does in my patients. And so it was a great find. That made the day. It was one of the bright spots during the scanning."

GORDON: Did you ever worry or feel like you were disrupting something that is sacred in some regards? You know if you're running this CT scan on a high priest, did you ever feel like you were kind of invading a certain not to be looked at entity or space?

THOMPSON: "No, but we did try to treat these mummies with great respect. It's interesting. 100 years ago they weren't treated with great respect. Some of the mummies had been unwrapped. In fact, I read an old advertisement where someone was selling tickets to a mummy unwrapping. We would just be horrified to do that today or to think of that. But we did try to treat these mummies with great respect. They were handled by the Egyptians themselves. And also, it seemed to be a proper way to do scientific research, and perhaps help mankind in the future by doing this kind of investigation.

By the end of their expedition, Thompson and his colleagues discovered significant deposits of calcium in either the heart, leg, or neck arteries of more than half of the middle-aged and older mummies they scanned. Thompson says when those white calcium deposits are present, they shine like a Christmas light on a CT screen. What it indicates, he says is that those upper class Egyptians most likely suffered from cardiovascular disease.

"And so what we found is that this disease that we think of coming from modern lifestyles has been around for a long time," Thompson said. "It's as old as Moses, it's been here since the pyramids, and we have to look beyond diet and lifestyle in order to think about why it occurs and why it progresses."

GORDON: So does this kind of debunk this whole idea of fast food and our modern lifestyle causing heart disease, which is such a huge cause of death?

THOMPSON: "Not exactly. It's clear, at least it's clear to me, that the disease to a certain extent is endemic to humans. It's part of the human condition. But our genetics and environment do interact. In fact, the message I take is that all of us are at risk. And so therefore, it's all the more important to pay attention to our risk factors, to live a healthy life, to control the parts of this process that you can control."

GORDON: So if that's what we think about today, do you have any theories about how people 3500 years ago developed heart disease, other than genetics?

THOMPSON: "Well, we've had a lot of fun discussion about this. I have a lot of colleagues who believe in the hunter gatherer theory. They believe that heart disease did not occur 10,000 years ago or more. They think mankind took a wrong turn when the hunter gatherers settled down and became farmers. And that the diet and lifestyle was quite different. And indeed, the ancient Egyptians were farmers, not hunter gatherers. But still, they got more exercise than we do and didn't eat processed foods. So that's one thought. My view is that it probably is just endemic to humans. That we have a certain genetic tendency. For example, some primates - baboons for example -will develop atherosclerosis heart attacks when they live in the zoo. Now, they're not eating fast food either, they're not even eating rich foods. They're being given the foods that we think baboons are supposed to eat, and yet they get the disease process too. So I think to a certain extent it's part of the human condition, just like presbyopia. An awful lot of us over age forty have to wear reading glasses, an awful lot of us get grey hair, an awful lot of us get degenerative arthritis. And so, to a certain extent that's part of what happens when you're human."

The results of the mummy project have now been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

But, Thompson says he got some mixed reactions when he first told people about what he was doing.

"Some of the colleagues were very interested. They thought an idea of trying to see if ancient people had this disease that's so common today was very interesting and very worthwhile," Thompson said. "And others thought it seemed like a hair brained scheme. That we're doing what? We're CAT scanning mummies? Don't you have enough patients? I had to put up with a few jokes, but most people were supportive."

GORDON: What were some of the jokes?

"Um don't you have enough live patients to take care of? Are you a mummy's boy? Instead of a mammogram, you're doing mummy-grams," Thompson said, laughing.

Thompson says the data he and other researchers collected from those mummy-grams' has only partially been looked at so far. They did scan the whole body, not just the cardiovascular system.

He says dentists and orthopedists he knows also to hope to examine the Mummies' bones and teeth from the scans, to find clues about other diseases they may have had.

Thompson also says that while he keeps pretty busy Mid America Heart Institute, he does hope to return to Cairo and do further research on the Mummies there sometime soon.

Audio Credit: Soundtrack to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Indiana Jones)

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