Wednesday 24 January 2018

Ancient skeletons could help solve mystery of rare disease

Louise Hogan

TWO ancient skeletons with a rare genetic bone disease unearthed from a medieval Irish graveyard may hold key insights for medical experts.

An archaeologist believes the discovery of the remains -- afflicted by massive bone growths -- could help modern-day clinicians glean more information about that unusual debilitating condition.

There have only been 16 cases of the hereditary bone growth disorder, now known as multiple osteochondromas, identified in ancient remains worldwide. Four of these have been located in Ireland.

The two skeletons -- one around 800-years-old and the other 1,100-years-old -- dug up along with the remains of more than 1,000 men, women and children from the Ballyhanna graveyard site at Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, have attracted the attention of international medical researchers.

Dr Eileen Murphy, an archaeology lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, believes the two cases could "help inform clinicians" in understanding the disease.

"I think it is good for clinicians to look at how diseases change and the way they turn up in the body over time. Some of the Jericho cases (dating from the Middle Bronze Age) are very old and can show if it has progressed in any way or mutated," Dr Murphy, who is writing a paper on the two cases, said.

A sample of the 800-year-old remains from Skeleton 331 known as 'Ballyhanna Man' was sent to a genetics unit in Italy for further examination.

"We took a sample of the bone to send off to genetics units but the DNA in the bone was too degraded," Dr Murphy explained.

However, they hold hopes that in the future a specialised laboratory may be able to extract DNA of sufficient quality for analysis to provide clues as to the evolution of the disease, which is estimated to affect one in 50,000 people.

Researchers from the Institute of Technology in Sligo and Queen's University Belfast are collaborating on the Ballyhanna project.

The 800-year-old remains of the worst-affected man, who died aged between 25 to 35 years old, showed he would have been physically disabled due to massive bony projections.

It is likely that he would have suffered from pain and have been recognised by others as having a physically debilitating condition from a young age.


The remains of the other man, who died a few hundred years earlier aged around 35-50 years, had less prominent growths.

In both cases, they were interred in the community graveyard, suggesting they were not shunned and treated as equals.

A US group run by parents' of children affected by the disease has contacted the Ballyhanna project to learn more about the discoveries.

The remains were discovered when the forgotten cemetery at Ballyhanna was excavated in 2003/2004 ahead of the building of a new stretch of motorway.

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