The first evidence of cancer has been found in a horned dinosaur called Centrosaurus © Fred Wierum/Wikimedia Commons

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Dinosaur diaries: human cancer found in dinosaur bone

Just like animals today, dinosaurs got diseases. Now, for the first time ever, evidence of cancer has been found in the bones of a dinosaur, which could help us understand the deep evolutionary history of this disease and lead to new cancer treatments.

Discover more about this finding, as well as what the ancestors of sauropods and tyrannosaurs may have looked like with the Museum's team of dinosaur experts.

A team of palaeontologists and doctors have looked a the shin bone, or fibula, of a 76 million-year-old horned dinosaur called Centrosaurus.  Collected from the rocks of the Dinosaur Park Formation in Alberta, Canada in 1989, the specimen consisted of the bottom two-thirds of the bone. It had a large mass at one end that had previously been thought to have been created as the bone healed following a fracture.

The work has been published in the journal The Lancet Oncology.

The dinosaur fibula was compared to a confirmed case of human osteosarcoma, from a young man whose lower leg had to be amputated following his diagnosis, as well as with a healthy Centrosaurus fibula.

CT scan showing how the cancerous tissue was identifed within the shaft of the dinosaur bone.

The tumor (in yellow) was imaged in a CT scanner to allow the palaeontologists and doctors to have a detailed look at its internal structure © Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University

The team used several techniques to analyse the bony mass on the Centrosaurus fibula. Initial investigations showed similarities between it and the human tumour, with very thin bone covering the tumour sites.

Comparing CT scans of the human and dinosaur bone showed bone formation in the tumour sites was chaotic, rather than the regular pattern seen in healthy tissue. 3D data from the scan showed how the tumour had spread through the dinosaur bone, indicating the animal had lived with the disease for some time.

Finally, by creating thin sections of the dinosaur bone and observing them under the microscope the team was able to confirm that the unusual growth was caused by osteosarcoma.

It’s hard to say if it was the cancer that killed the Centrosaurus, as this animal was found in a bed containing many different individuals. It is probable that the animal was deposited when a herd was killed in a catastrophic event such as a flood. However, the disease would have left the unfortunate herbivore vulnerable to predation.

This is the first confirmed case of an aggressive, malignant bone cancer in a dinosaur and, because it is of a type of cancer that also occurs in humans, it shows that cancer has a deep evolutionary history. This finding could aid in the development of targeted cancer therapies in the future and demonstrates just one of the ways we benefit from the study of ancient life.

Skeletal reconstruction of the dinosaur showing how the cancerous bone was in the back right leg of the animal.

The cancerous bone would have been in the animal's back right leg © Danielle Dufault/Royal Ontario Museum

The 'daemon' dinosaur that gave rise to sauropods and tyrannosaurs

The origin of dinosaurs is still shrouded in mystery. The first animals were likely small, and lightly built, meaning that their remains were not often preserved. But technology is helping scientists to take a new look at old fossils and may have helped identify the last common ancestors of Tyrannosaurus rex and Diplodocus.

The oldest known dinosaurs appeared during the middle of the Triassic Period, roughly 230-240 million years ago. The fossil record during this time has many large gaps and suggests that dinosaurs were not particularly widespread to begin with. This means that any remains of these early dinosaurs are potentially important for research.

In 1947 a large bone bed containing the remains of the early dinosaur Coelophysis was discovered in New Mexico. But within these rocks was something else: a nearly complete skull, jaw and some of the spine of a different type of dinosaur, one that had unusually large eyes and curved prominent teeth at the front of its jaw.

It was named Daemonosaurus, literally 'demon reptile', by Hans-Dieter Sues and colleagues in 2011, who believed it to be an early member of the carnivorous theropod dinosaurs, the group of dinosaurs that contain the more well-known Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor.

A reconstruction of Daemonsaurus, showing it as a two legged fuzzy dinosaur.

The ancestors to both sauropods and tyrannosaurs may have looked something like this small bipedal animal © Michael B. H./Wikimedia Commons

Since then technology has moved on, and it is allowing researchers to take a new look at these fossils.

A new paper by Sterling Nesbitt and Sues takes another look at the fossils assigned to Daemonosaurus and more accurately predicts where this unusual animal falls on the dinosaur family tree.

Scans have revealed more details from the fossils than they could before, allowing the team to pick out features not seen in the original study.

The time in which Daemonosaurus lived was so early in dinosaur evolution that the boundaries between the distinct groups were blurred. This is because they hadn't yet diversified into the many famous species we recognise today.

The team discovered that Daemonosaurus is in fact from somewhere even closer to the base of the dinosaur family tree than first thought. It could have evolved before the theropods and the large herbivorous sauropods split. This means it might be an ancestor of both of these groups of dinosaurs.

Future studies on the dinosaur family tree may see things change again, highlighting the importance of every fossil from this time and the power of going back and looking at earlier ones with new technology