Solving the mystery of the Elephant Man?

Tests are being carried out to establish the genetic condition suffered by Joseph Carey Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man.

The skeleton of Joseph Carey Merrick - image Ray Crundwell, Queen Mary

Tests are being carried out to establish the genetic condition suffered by Joseph Carey Merrick, better known as the Elephant Man.

A team at Queen Mary University of London is using new techniques to extract DNA from Merrick’s bones. Previous attempts failed because the skeleton was cleaned with bleach-like agents.

Merrick was an object of fascination in the Victorian period; his curved spine, overgrown skull and ‘trunk-like’ facial growth made him a popular freak show attraction.

Merrick’s skeleton has been stored at Queen Mary University of London since 1995, and has been used as a learning resource since 2005.

Now, researchers hope to use new techniques to recreate Merrick’s DNA sequence.

By comparing DNA extracted from both a normal part of his skeleton, and a part affected by his deformities, the team hopes to spot differences in the DNA sequence. This should enable them to better understand what genetic condition Merrick suffered from.

Researchers are currently testing their technique on a sample extracted from the skeleton of a woman who died around the same time as Merrick.

Professor Richard Trembath, vice-principal for health at Queen Mary University of London and the custodian of Merrick's body, told historyextra: “We have, over the years, refined the way in which we obtain DNA, and we now feel confident we have good quality DNA from our test skeleton.

“We have sent it away to the sequencing lab, and if successful, we will then use the same technique to obtain a sample from Merrick.

“But trying to spot a difference in DNA sequences is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

“And to add to the challenge, we will only extract a small sample, to try to cause minimal damage to Merrick’s skeleton.

“Obtaining DNA is also made more difficult because our predecessors cleaned the skeleton with bleach-like agents.”

Prof Trembath continued: “This is such an important project – it is likely to provide us with a better understanding of how cells work. It has real scientific value.

“I am cautiously confident we will find out what genetic condition Merrick suffered from. Once we have a sample, it may take just three months until we have answers.

“But we face numerous challenges, and even if we obtain a sample, it will be hard to be sure that we have isolated normal DNA from abnormal DNA, as even bones that look normal may in fact not be.”

The team’s research was the focus of a BBC Inside Out programme, broadcast on Monday. The programme is available to watch on iPlayer.

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