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Novel approach finds lung infection in 500-year-old mummy

Friday, August 10, 2012 - 02:46

Aug. 10 - A combination of DNA and protein analysis has been used for the first time to determine the health of a mummified 15-year-old girl at the time she died. Scientists say that ''La Doncella'' (The Maiden), a 500-year-old Inca mummy, was suffering from a lung infection and believe the findings demonstrate the enormous potential of the new method. Tara Cleary reports.

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PLEASE NOTE: THIS EDIT CONTAINS CONVERTED 4:3 MATERIAL When she died 500 years ago, "La Doncella", The Maiden, was 15 years old … sacrificed along with two younger Incan children in ancient Argentina. Details of her life have been a mystery ever since she was discovered in 1999, but scientists do know one thing: she was fighting a lung infection when she died. Led by Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Angelique Corthals, a team of scientists took swab samples from "The Maiden" and another of the mummified children to test a new approach to biological discovery. Corthals theorized that by combining proteomics in her tests - a method that breaks down proteins into amino acids - and human genome matching, she could compare the results to come to a definitive conclusion. Corthals says she was amazed to find that the protein profile from "The Maiden," was similar to that of patients with chronic respiratory disease, indicating that her immune system was fighting the infection at the time of her death. Analysis of The Maiden's DNA and X-rays of her lungs confirmed the diagnosis. However, "The Boy's" proteomics, DNA, and x-rays showed no signs of a similar contagion. SOUNDBITE: DOCTOR ANGELIQUE CORTHALS, FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST, SAYING (English): "When we compared the two protein profiles, we found out that they are very, very different which really showed that The Maiden was fighting an infection." Past DNA tests discovered the presence of disease in mummies - like the malaria found on King Tutankhamun. But they don't prove that the deceased was actually infected at the time of death, says Corthals. SOUNDBITE: DOCTOR ANGELIQUE CORTHALS, FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST, SAYING (English): "Yes, there was pathogen DNA discovered and detected, but do we know whether or not he was actively fighting malaria at the time of death? Well we can't be sure of that. Now, we have a way of looking at whether the infection is active, or whether the pathogen that you have detected using DNA is just latent " Corthals says this new technique will help scientists better understand the lives of past civilizations and how their immune systems responded to disease. And she says it will also open doors to better ways of fighting future pathogens, like H1N1. SOUNDBITE: DOCTOR ANGELIQUE CORTHALS, FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST, SAYING (English): "I very much think that proteomics is the thing of the future and the two together, the two tools, the human genome and the future - it's not quite done yet - but the future human proteomes will really fast forward advances in medicine." The three mummies may have lived 500 years ago, but for modern science, their legacy endures.

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Novel approach finds lung infection in 500-year-old mummy

Friday, August 10, 2012 - 02:46