Israeli researchers at Tel Aviv University, led by Dr. Hila May of the Department of Anatomy & Anthropology at the Faculty of Medicine, identified a benign tumor called LCH (Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis) in two fossilized tail vertebrae of a young dinosaur that lived in southern Alberta, Canada over 60 million years ago.
This type of tumor is a rare disease still found today in humans, particularly in children under the age of 10. It can cause significant pain, but often disappears by itself.
The findings indicate that the disease is not unique to humans, and has survived through the long evolutionary process, from dinosaurs to humans, for over 60 million years.
“Researchers in North America studying dinosaur fossils identified large cavities, evidently created by tumors, in two tail vertebrae of a young dinosaur discovered in southern Alberta,” May explained.
“The dinosaur belonged to the genus Hadrosaurus, also known as ‘duck-billed dinosaurs’ – herbivores common almost all over the world about 66-80 million years ago,” she said.
The specific shape of the cavities caught the researchers’ attention because they were very similar to cavities created by the rare tumor LCH, which still affects humans today.
The dinosaur’s vertebrae were sent to the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, for inspection with the institute’s advanced micro-CT scanner.
“The micro-CT scanner generates images with a very high resolution of up to a few microns,” said May. “Using it to scan the dinosaur vertebrae we were able to form a reconstructed 3D image of the tumor and the blood vessels leading to it. The image confirmed in a high probability that the dinosaur did indeed suffer from LCH.”
“The surprising findings indicate that the disease is not unique to humans and that it existed in different species over 60 million years – through the long evolutionary process from dinosaurs to humans,” she added.
“Research of this kind, made possible by current technology, contributes a great deal to Evolutionary Medicine – a relatively new field of research which investigates the development and behavior of diseases over time,” says Prof. Israel Hershkovitz from TAU’s Faculty of Medicine who has studied malignant tumors in dinosaurs and who assisted in the identification of the LCH tumor in this study.
“Evolutionary Medicine researchers try to understand why certain diseases have survived through millions of years of evolution and to discover their source, in order to ultimately develop new and effective ways to address them today,” he elucidated.