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Mummies back from dead with a modern miracle

UPPER-CLASS Egyptians preparing for their journey for the afterlife cannot in their wildest dreams have imagined that it might take a tiny part of them to Manchester in the cause of medical science.

Mummified bodies were carted off from tombs by the Nile in great numbers during the 18th and 19th centuries to become somewhat macabre curiosities in the museums of Europe. But Manchester has always had a more scientific bent.

Dr Margaret Murray and an interdisciplinary team unwrapped and carried out necropsies (autopsies) on two mummies at the University of Manchester in 1908 and published the findings.

Now a request has gone out world-wide to help in the establishment of the first Egyptian Mummy International Tissue Bank at the Manchester Museum. Only small samples are being sought - one or two grams of dry tissue and hopefully a snip of hair - but from this it should be possible to unlock thousands of years of disease history.

The concept of a tissue bank arose out of an on-going study in the Nile valley into "bilharzia", a potentially fatal disease afflicting between 200 and 300 million people world-wide. Correctly known as Schistosomiasis, it is carried by parasites which live on snails in stagnant water. Specialists on the 15-strong team of the Manchester Egyptian Mummy Project are working on the study in co-operation with the Egyptian Ministry of Health and the US Medical Service Corporation International.

Using techniques developed at Manchester enabling certain diseases to be detected in small samples of tissue, it should be possible for the first time to add a new dimension to medical research, looking back over a 5,000-year timespan.

Egyptians perfected the preservation of bodies by mummification around 2,600BC, using it first for royalty and then the upper and middle classes. However, bits of the pharaohs will not be deposited in the tissue bank. Egypt forbids such exports. If the study was to check on the health of Tutankhamun it would be as part of research to be done on mummies within Egypt.

Manchester's letter to the world's museums acknowledges that the permanent transfer of even a small sample of mummy tissue raises "important ethical issues", but it gives an assurance that the samples will be handled with dignity and used only for bona fide research.

Dr Rosalie David, Keeper of Egyptology and director of the project, is encouraged by the initial response to the appeal and hopes that eventually the bank will hold tissue from a large population. Several thousand mummies were taken out of Egypt and there are up to 600 in Britain alone, with the biggest collection at the British Museum. Manchester has 21 human mummies and 34 mummified animals, assorted cats, birds rodents and even crocodiles. Some would have been pets and others revered as having the spirits of gods.

Scientists suspect bilharzia will be found in the ancient Egyptians just as it afflicts some 20 per cent of its people today. But by tracking it back more than 5,000 years a pattern may emerge which might point to a cause, or aid in combating the infection.

The bilharzia study will be only the beginning. It is believed that the tissue samples could also yield valuable information about other diseases, notably malaria, one of the world's biggest killers.

When Howard Carter found Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, the last of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings to be discovered, it seemed like the last piece of the jigsaw of ancient Egypt. But the work at Manchester suggest the mummies have much more to tell us.

"At this stage it is difficult to be certain of what the additional value will be of this extra dimension [time]," said Tristram Besterman, director of the Manchester Museum. "But everyone involved thinks it's worth doing to see where it leads us."