WEDNESDAY, July 25, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- A technique used to detect an immune response in a 500-year-old mummy could help solve historical medical mysteries, U.S. scientists say.
The team at Stony Brook University in New York analyzed proteins from swab samples taken from the lips of the mummy -- an Incan girl who died at age 15 -- and found evidence of an immune response associated with chronic respiratory infection.
Current techniques that focus on DNA from microbes can confirm the presence of pathogens (infectious agents) on human remains, including ancient ones. But the techniques can't determine if the person was ill with an infectious disease.
The researchers developed a new method that profiles and quantifies all the proteins in a sample and does not require fresh tissue. That's how they were able to detect the immune response in the mummy that was buried in the Andean mountains.
The findings were published online in the journal PLoS One.
"This approach opens a new door to ways in which scientists can more accurately solve some of history's pressing medical mysteries, such as why the influenza epidemic of 1918 was so devastating, or what really caused such high mortality in plague epidemics," study author and forensic anthropologist Angelique Corthals said in a university news release.
When a person is infected by a pathogen, the body defends itself by producing a distinct profile of proteins, she explained.
CT scans and other examinations of the mummy also revealed indications of a wide range of infectious diseases.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discusses respiratory infections in travelers.