New Research Shows Dinosaurs Suffered From Malignant Cancer, Too

Aug 4, 2020
Originally published on August 5, 2020 6:00 am

Scientists from Canada's Royal Ontario Museum and McMaster University say they have identified malignant bone cancer in a dinosaur for the first time.

The new research was published earlier this week in the journal The Lancet Oncology.

The diagnosis? Osteosarcoma — an aggressive bone cancer — in the fibula, or lower leg bone, of a Centrosaurus apertus, a plant-eating, single-horned dinosaur that lived 76 to 77 million years ago.

The discovery opens up new understanding about other diseases that may have developed in dinosaurs, among other aspects of dinosaur life.

"What this study shows, because we found bone cancer at quite an advanced stage, is that dinosaurs were not only afflicted by bone cancer but probably all sorts of other cancers that we see in vertebrates today," says David Evans, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum and one of the study's lead researchers.

Though the diagnosis is new, the bone was discovered in 1989. That's when a crew from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Canada, discovered the fibula in a massive bone bed in Alberta, Canada.

The fibula was badly malformed, but scientists initially assessed it as a healing broken bone, and that the odd shape was a fracture callous.

The bone sat in the museum's collection until 2017, when a team led by Evans and Mark Crowther, a professor of pathology at McMaster University, began to search through the hundreds of injured or partially healed bones on a mission.

"We basically went on a hunt for dinosaur cancer," Evans says.

Evans, Crowther and Snezana Popovic, an osteopathologist at McMasters, combed through hundreds of bones before they found the unusually malformed fibula to investigate for signs of cancer.

They brought in specialists in an array of fields, including pathology, radiology, orthopedic surgery and paleopathology, to examine and diagnose the suspected tumor.

"The approach we took in this case was very similar to how we approach a patient that comes in with a new tumor, and we don't know what kind of tumor it is," says Seper Ekhtiari, an orthopedic surgery resident at McMaster University who worked on the team.

They were able to visualize the progression of cancer through the bone by performing high-resolution CT scans of the fibula and examining thin sections of the bone at the cellular level under a microscope.

The team confirmed the diagnosis of osteosarcoma by comparing the bone to the fibula of a healthy centrosaurus and that of a human with osteosarcoma.

Two views of the Centrosaurus apertus shin bone (fibula) with malignant bone cancer (osteosarcoma). The extensive invasion of the cancer throughout the bone (yellow) suggests that it persisted for a considerable period of the dinosaur's life and may have spread to other parts of the body prior to death.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University

While this is the first identified instance of osteosarcoma in a dinosaur, Ekhtiari says it makes sense that a cancer associated with rapid bone growth would have plagued the dinosaurs.

"One of the ways they got to such massive sizes is that they grew extremely rapidly from the time when they were born," Ekhtiari says. "So finding this in a dinosaur is not surprising." In fact, he says, bone cancer "is probably more common than we think, or more common than we have found so far."

Crowther, the pathologist, adds that their finding suggests that dinosaurs likely suffered from other diseases that affect the bones — like tuberculosis and osteomyelitis.

Even though it points to a potential cause of death for dinosaurs, the cancer discovery also has given insight into how they lived and survived.

Take the diseased centrosaurus. While it would have been severely hobbled by the advanced stage of cancer found in its fibula, it didn't die from the disease, nor was it picked off by a predator like a Tyrannosaurus rex. Its bones were found in a massive bone bed, which scientists believe is the partial remains of a large herd drowned by a flood.

"The cancer was able to progress to the stage that it did because of the safety in numbers of the herd that it lived in," says Evans, the paleontologist.

While the discovery opens up many new doors in paleontology and pathology, one of the biggest impacts of the study might be a shift in the way we perceive dinosaurs.

"We often think of dinosaurs as sort of mythical, powerful creatures, and I think this discovery really underscores that they can be afflicted by diseases that we see around us today, even horrible fatal cancers," Evans says. "I think in an odd way it brings them even more back to life."

: 8/04/20

In an earlier version of this story, David Evans is quoted as saying the study shows that dinosaurs were probably afflicted by "all sorts of other cancers that we see in invertebrates today." In fact, he said "in vertebrates today."

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

The word dinosaur literally means terrible lizard. And now scientists have discovered that the terrible lizards had terrible diseases, too. They say they've identified the first case of malignant cancer in a dinosaur bone.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This dino was a plant eater adorned with a spiky shield on its head and a huge horn like a triceratops, but with one big horn instead of three.

VANEK SMITH: And its leg bone had an interesting history. It was dug up in 1989 by a crew from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Canada, but it just sat in the museum's cabinets.

SHAPIRO: Until 2017 when a team of enterprising scientists showed up, led by David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum.

DAVID EVANS: We basically went on a hunt for dinosaur cancer. And I said, well, our best chance would be to go to the Tyrrell Museum and sort through their cabinets of pathological dinosaur bones.

SHAPIRO: Evans says they scanned hundreds of specimens, the remains of a herd of plant-eating dinosaurs wiped out by a flood some 76 million years ago. Here's Evans' colleague Mark Crowther.

MARK CROWTHER: It's basically like a smorgasbord of bones, and you can walk through it and look for ones that are pathologically abnormal. And of the hundreds of bones we looked at, we identified this one bone as being a potential for cancer.

VANEK SMITH: Next, they brought in orthopedic surgery resident Seper Ekhtiari to investigate.

SEPER EKHTIARI: The approach we took in this case was very similar to how we approach a patient that comes in with a new tumor and we don't know what kind of tumor it is.

VANEK SMITH: The team took CT scans, studied the bone's cellular structure and compared it to human cancer.

SHAPIRO: And their conclusion - the animal had aggressive malignant bone cancer. That dino diagnosis appears in the journal The Lancet Oncology.

VANEK SMITH: Evans says the cancer gives us clues to how the dinosaurs lived.

EVANS: The fact that this animal wasn't actually killed by a cancer or killed by tyrannosaurs - it was killed by a flood - suggests that it was - basically, the cancer was allowed to progress to the stage that it did because of that safety in numbers of the herd that it lived in.

SHAPIRO: And he says this might soften our perception of dinosaurs, too.

EVANS: We often think of dinosaurs as sort of mythical, powerful creatures, and I think this discovery really underscores the fact that they can be afflicted by diseases that we see around us today, even horrible, fatal cancers. And in an odd way, it brings them even more back to life.

VANEK SMITH: One thing's for sure - this is only going to complicate the debate over what really killed the dinosaurs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL T'S "MISSION HILL MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.