/ 13 July 2008

Ancient bones may lead to TB cure

Ancient bones from the city of Jericho are to be used by British scientists to develop treatments for tuberculosis (TB). The project is part of a new scientific discipline in which archaeologists and medical researchers are cooperating to gain insights into modern ailments.

Other diseases being tackled this way include syphilis, malaria, arthritis and influenza. Ancient history holds vital clues in seeking out treatments for modern diseases, according to these real-life counterparts of British TV’s new archaeological detective series Bonekickers, starring Hugh Bonneville and Adrian Lester.

The programme gives dramatic relevance to the study of archaeology, as British scientists are doing with the study of ancient diseases.

This point is stressed by project leader Professor Mark Spigelman, of University College London. ”I don’t think we’ve got new diseases today; we have got variations of old diseases,” he said.

The team, which also includes Israeli, Palestinian and German researchers, will be following up pioneering work by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon. In the Fifties she made a series of important digs at Jericho and found bones from thousands of humans, some dating back 8 000 years.

When these bones were examined, it was discovered many had lesions, indicating that the city’s men and women had suffered from TB. The walls of Jericho may have come down, not with a trumpet blast, but with epidemic of coughing, it seems.

Now Spigelman and his team have begun studying DNA from these remains in order to identify genes that might have helped to make the people of Jericho susceptible or resistant to TB, and so help in the development of more effective treatments for the disease.

In addition, the team will study how the TB bacterium evolved over the millennia. ”As humans grew up, the bugs grew up — and we are looking for these changes,” said Spigelman.

Crucially, TB needs an urban environment to survive. ”TB is a disease of crowds because it spreads by people coughing,” added Spigelman. And given that Jericho was one of the world’s oldest cities, its human remains are crucial to investigating the roots of TB thousands of years ago.

”Jericho is pivotal because it gives us a founder population from a very, very early site of urbanisation,” he added.

Today TB infects nine million people a year — 450 000 with a strain that is resistant to first-line drugs, according to the World Health Organisation. The need to gain new insights into the disease has therefore become urgent.

Not every disease is susceptible to such research, however. According to Dr Simon Mays at English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory, many illnesses leave no marks on the skeletons of their victims, making it impossible for scientists to pinpoint the bones of disease victims and to study them.

”For example, viral infections tend to be rapid in their impact and leave no trace,” he said. ”On the other hand, many bacterial infections do leave bone lesions, however — such as TB, leprosy and syphilis. Each of these has become of the focus of research, as a result.

”Historical clues are also useful. We can study the skeletons of bubonic plague victims because we know many were buried in special communal graves.”

In addition, scientists recently exhumed the bodies of victims of the 1918 flu epidemic because they had been buried in marked graves. Data from this research has been crucial in preparing medical defences against future epidemics, added Mays.

In addition, digs in Britain have provided evidence of arthritis spread through the population during the Middle Ages.

”Archaeological research has also shown that until relatively recently, children were weaned around the age of three,” said archaeologist David Miles, ”for the reason that late-weaned children were better protected against infections. Weaning children early, as we do today, is not necessarily a good thing, the lesson of history would suggest.” — guardian.co.uk