Research findings

October 19, 2001


The true curse of the pharaohs has been identified among remains left by Tutankhamun's tomb workers and guards - fleas.

The excavation of a 3,300-year-old village in the Egyptian desert, 0km south of Cairo, recovered 35 desiccated insects. Eva Panagiotakopulu, a Leverhulme postdoctoral fellow at Sheffield University who led the work, believes it is the earliest evidence of human fleas in the Old World. It is also an indication of ancient trade links that spanned the globe.

The dry and stable conditions at Amarna have allowed fragile evidence of infestation to survive. The insects would have plagued tomb workers and guards who lived in the village from the reign of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten until the death of the child ruler Tutankhamun two decades later.

Dr Panagiotakopulu said that the insects would not have been fussy in choosing their hosts. "If the labourers had them, the pharaohs would have had them also. There is no way to avoid fleas," she said.

Human fleas are believed to have originated in South America, where they first lived on guinea pigs. Research by Paul Buckland and Jon Sadler at Sheffield and Birmingham universities has suggested that the insects spread to humans soon after guinea pigs were domesticated for meat. Fleas then moved rapidly around the world, jumping from host to host, through the Americas, over the Bering Strait, across Asia and into Europe and Africa. Dr Panagiotakopulu thinks this could have been facilitated by the exchange of furs. Her research is published in the journal Antiquity.


A way to alert doctors that a particular case of breast cancer is likely to spread through the body is being developed by molecular biologists at Liverpool University. The research by Roger Barraclough and Philip Rudland could help reduce suffering by allowing treatment to be tailored accordingly.
One in seven cases of cancer in European women is breast cancer, and about half of those cases prove fatal. Most of those who die do so as a result of cancer cells spreading after surgery or radiotherapy.

In tests involving gene transfer in rats and mice, the scientists found that a high level of the protein p9Ka in a tumour is a strong indicator that a cancer will spread. The research is not conclusive, but a study of breast cancer tissue collected from 340 patients in Liverpool over the past 20 years showed that those whose tumours contained p9Ka were between ten and 12 times more likely to die than those whose tumours did not.

If a similar connection was found to exist in early tumours - which is being explored by the research team - it should be a straightforward task to screen for p9Ka's presence either in a biopsy sample or in a blood test.

Those with a high risk of their cancer spreading could be given moderate doses of chemotherapy immediately after the primary tumour is removed and before any signs of secondary tumours emerge. This could significantly improve their life expectancy without inducing the most severe side-effects that modern treatment usually entails. Low-risk patients would just be monitored.

The scientists do not know the mechanism behind p9Ka's link with the spread of tumours, but they suggest that the gene that codes for it may be accidentally switched on as a cell becomes cancerous. It is a normally harmless protein linked with cell motility.

Another protein, osteopontin, which makes cells stick together, has been identified as showing similar properties, although its study is at an early stage. Two other promising candidates are also being investigated.

Dr Barraclough and Professor Rudland have been probing the molecular science behind the spread of tumours for two decades, backed largely by local charities such as the Cancer and Polio Research Fund and the North West Cancer Research Fund.

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