Tuscan cemetery could help cure cholera

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Researchers in Tuscany are searching for the bacterium behind cholera. Lab photo: Shutterstock
12:12 CET+01:00
Human remains unearthed in a Tuscan cemetery could reveal vital clues as to how Italians died of cholera, in turn helping scientists combat the deadly disease.

Excavations underway at the Badia Pozzeveri cemetery, in Lucca province, have so far uncovered the bodies of up to 30 cholera victims. The Italians died in the outbreak of 1855 and were hastily buried, their bodies covered with lime which preserved the corpses. 

Clark Spencer Larsen, a professor at Ohio State University in the US and one of the excavation leaders, said the skeletons are thought to be “the best preserved remains of cholera victims of this time period ever found”.

“We’re very excited about what we may be able to learn,” he said in California on Sunday , at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Now more than four years into the project, co-managed by the University of Pisa, researchers are now analyzing DNA samples in search of the bacterium behind cholera.

“If we found the DNA we could see how cholera has evolved and compare it to what the bacteria is like today. That’s the first step to possibly finding a cure,” Larsen said.

Cholera spread from India in the 19th century and seven pandemics have killed millions of people around the world.

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Between 100,000 and 120,000 people are estimated to die each year from cholera, with cases of the disease recorded in 58 countries worldwide in 2011. It can kill within hours and is still “endemic in many countries”, according to the World Health Organization.


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