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Scientists diagnose dinosaur with malignant cancer found in humans today

A fossilized dinosaur fibula's 76-million-year-old medical secret leads to a paleontology first.

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This fossil bone from a Centrosaurus apertus led to a bone cancer diagnosis.

Danielle Dufault, Royal Ontario Museum

Osteosarcoma is an aggressive bone cancer that occurs in humans, mostly children and young adults. It also afflicted a horned dinosaur 76 million years ago. 

A study led by researchers at McMaster University and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada has resulted in a surprising diagnosis of osteosarcoma in the fibula of a Centrosaurus apertus, a dinosaur that resembles the more familiar triceratops.

"No malignant cancers -- tumors that can spread throughout the body and have severe health implications -- have ever been documented in dinosaurs previously," McMaster University said in a release on Monday. The team published its findings in The Lancet Oncology journal this month.  

This shows the location of the bone in the dinosaur's leg and highlights the cancer tumor mass.

Centrosaurus diagram by Danielle Dufault. Courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum. Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University

Scientists originally thought the leg bone's odd shape came from a healed break, but a much closer look revealed the truth. 

"After carefully examining, documenting and casting the bone, the team performed high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scans. They then thin-sectioned the fossil bone and examined it under a microscope to assess it at the bone-cellular level," McMaster said.

The researchers also compared the bone with a known case of osteosarcoma in a human and with a normal Centrosaurus apertus leg bone. Though the dinosaur's cancer was advanced, it appeared to have died in a flood rather than from the illness. 

"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease," said paleontologist David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum.

"Establishing links between human disease and the diseases of the past will help scientists to gain a better understanding of the evolution and genetics of various diseases," said McMaster University. 

The dinosaur's diagnosis has created a thread across time, an unsettling connection between today and an ancient world.