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Hum Pathol. 2011 Mar;42(3):332-9. doi: 10.1016/j.humpath.2010.07.010. Epub 2010 Dec 15.

Gene-environment interactions in the pre-Industrial Era: the cancer of King Ferrante I of Aragon (1431-1494).

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Department of Experimental Medicine, Sapienza University of Rome, Viale Regina Elena, 324, 00161 Rome, Italy.


King Ferrante I of Aragon, leading figure of the Italian Renaissance, died in 1494. The autopsy of his mummy revealed a tumor infiltrating the small pelvis. We examined the histologic and molecular features of this ancient tumor to investigate its primary origin. Hematoxylin-eosin, Van Gieson, and Alcian Blue staining showed neoplastic cells infiltrating muscular fibers and forming pseudo-glandular lumina disseminated in fibrous stroma with scarce mucus. A strong immunoreactivity of the neoplastic cells was shown for pancytokeratins and proliferating cell nuclear antigen. Molecular fingerprints were investigated by examining K-ras, BRAF, and microsatellite instability in ancient tumor DNA. Sequencing analysis showed G-to-A transition in codon 12 of K-ras. BRAF mutations and microsatellite instability were not observed. Because the presence of K-ras codon 12 mutation could be associated with exposure to chemical carcinogens, possibly present in some food items, paleodietary reconstruction of the King Ferrante I was carried out by carbon (δ(13)C ) and nitrogen (δ(15)N) stable isotopes analysis. δ(13)C and δ(15)N values found in bone collagen of the King were consistent with a massive intake of animal proteins. Overall, our data show that the tumor of Ferrante I was a mucinous adenocarcinoma with molecular fingerprints characteristic of colorectal carcinogenesis linked to K-ras pathway. Paleodietary reconstruction and historical chronicles indicate a strong consumption of meat by the King. The possible abundance of dietary carcinogens, related to meat consumption, could explain the K-ras mutation causing the colorectal tumor that killed Ferrante I more than 5 centuries ago.

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