The beast is diagnosed a messy 77 million years after his death: he suffered from an aggressive form of bone cancer.

Cancer is not just a modern disease. Millions of years ago, animals could also suffer from it. Researchers have discovered an aggressive form of cancer in a dinosaur. The findings are published in the journal The Lancet Oncology

The fossil remains of the dinosaur in question were excavated in 1989 in the Provincial Dinosaur Park in the Canadian province of Alberta. Palaeontologists turned out to have found the remains of a real Centrosaurus apertus ; a horned dinosaur that roamed the earth some 76 to 77 million years ago. Their eye already fell on the rather curiously shaped fibula. But this was dismissed as just a deformity of the bone, likely representing a healing fracture.

The affected fibula with horned dinosaur tumor. 
Image: ROM

However, a new research team did not give up and decided to get to the bottom of the matter about this special bone. With the help of modern medical techniques, the research was continued by a large group of specialists and experts. The team studied the fossilized bone from head to toe and approached the case in the same way that they would in a contemporary human patient with an unknown tumor. And now, tens of millions of years after its death, the dinosaur is still receiving a solid diagnosis: the beast suffered from an aggressive form of bone cancer.

To be precise, the dinosaur suffered from osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumor. Characteristic of this tumor is that the cancer cells produce so-called bone bark. Osteosarcoma is the most common bone tumor in humans and occurs mainly in young adults; the age peak is between 10 and 25 years. This cancer is often found in the upper arm or around the knee, near the growth plate.

After the bone was carefully examined, the researchers then placed it under the CT scanner. Then they cut the bone into thin slices which they viewed under the microscope. Using three-dimensional reconstruction techniques, the researchers were able to visualize the growth of the cancer through the bone. To confirm the diagnosis, the researchers also compared the fossil to a normal dinosaur fibula of the same species and a human patient with osteosarcoma. And this led to the irrefutable conclusion that the dinosaur was indeed suffering from an advanced cancer that may have invaded other organs as well.

The findings are extremely rare. It is also the first time that a dinosaur has been diagnosed with bone cancer. “For a long time, identifying a malignant tumor like this one in dinosaurs has been impossible,” says researcher Mark Crowther. “Making a diagnosis requires medical expertise and multiple analyzes. But in our study, we found the unmistakable signs of advanced bone cancer in a 77 million year old horned dinosaur – the first of its kind. It’s an exciting discovery. ”

Incidentally, it appears that the dinosaur probably did not die from the disease. The fossil remains were found next to the remains of dozens of congeners. The researchers therefore believe that the herd was attacked by a flood. However, the tumor would have had an impact on the dinosaur. “The cancer probably weakened the dinosaur significantly,” said David Evans. It also made him vulnerable to the predatory tyrannosaurs of the time. The fact that this sick, herbivorous dinosaur lived in a large, protected herd may have allowed him to live a longer life than is normally the case with such a nasty disease. ”

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