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TB 'killed ancient Egyptian mummy'

world Updated: Sep 30, 2009 16:55 IST

The cause of death of an Egyptian mummy has puzzled pathologists for 200 years. Now, scientists have found clear evidence that Irtyersenu died of tuberculosis in Thebes around 600 BC.

Earlier it was believed that Irtyersenu died of ovarian cancer. But around 20 years ago, the remains of the mummy were rediscovered and subjected to new tests. These suggested that the ovarian tumour was benign, and that the mummy also had malaria and signs of inflammation in the lungs, which could have been caused by pneumonia or tuberculosis.

Now, a team, led by Helen Donoghue of the University College London, who led the current analysis of the mummy, has combined DNA amplification with a recently developed technique to search for a short repetitive section of DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

In their research, the team identified the organism in tissue from the lungs, bone and gall bladder and also found biomarkers specific to the cell wall of the bacterium in the lungs and bones, the 'New Scientist' reported.

"Together, these results suggest that TB infection had spread from her lungs to the rest of her body -- so-called disseminated TB. In ancient Egypt, this would have been fatal," Donoghue was quoted as saying.

The scientists found no further evidence of malaria, and the test that originally detected it has since been withdrawn as it can cross-react with other substances.

"The mystery of the mummy's death may have been resolved, but the mystery of how it was preserved remains. No one understands it," said Donoghue, whose findings have been published in the 'Proceedings of the Royal Society B'.