Back pain, knee problems, hernias -- these are just a few of today's more common medical ailments whose roots can be traced back millions of years, when our human ancestors evolved from walking on all fours to standing on their two hind legs. Cancer can be dated back even further -- Carnegie Museum of Natural History researchers have proof by way of a 150-million-year-old Jurassic dinosaur bone, its tumor still preserved.
Understanding the origins of human diseases could help identify fresh avenues toward their prevention and treatment. At the very least, an appreciation of the evolutionary history of humans and other animals should make for better medical doctors and physician-scientists, which is why the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is collaborating with Carnegie Museum of Natural History to offer its students educational and research opportunities unlike any available at other medical schools. The partnership, the Natural History of Medicine Initiative, is the first of its kind involving a medical school and natural history museum.
"This partnership is unique among medical schools," said John S. Lazo, Ph.D., Allegheny Foundation Professor of Pharmacology at Pitt's School of Medicine and Carnegie Museum of Natural History board member. "Our goal is to give medical students insight into the interrelationships between medicine and natural science, which we believe will enhance their understanding of the scientific discovery process while getting them to think about medicine in new ways. Together, the two institutions are able to create a uniquely enriching environment with an approach to medical education that focuses on how research themes of interest to museum scientists can reveal so much about contemporary medicine."
Four museum curators will have faculty appointments at the School of Medicine, teaching workshops, seminars and courses as well as mentoring medical students choosing to conduct scholarly research projects at the museum.
According to Christopher Beard, Ph.D., curator and head, Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, there is much that paleontologists can teach medical students.
"Many orthopaedic problems occur because human ancestors walked on all fours," Dr. Beard said. "When our ancestors began walking on only their hind legs, it allowed modern humans to do things with our hands. But at the same time, it made it harder for women to give birth, led to chronic lower back pain, hernias and other orthopaedic conditions.
"Using what we know about the fossil record and anatomical changes through time, we, as museum scientists, are beginning to piece together information about how genetics has influenced evolution, and vice versa. Interestingly, some physicians, including those at Pitt, are becoming increasingly aware of how medicine itself is evolutionary."
Dr. Beard, a former John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation "genius award" recipient, and Dr. Lazo, who directs Pitt's Drug Discovery Institute after 17 years as chair of the School of Medicine's department of pharmacology, originally conceived the idea for the initiative.
John Mahoney, M.D., assistant dean for medical education at the School of Medicine, has been working closely with the museum on developing the initiative's specific programs and planning for their incorporation into the medical student curriculum. Beginning in March, the initiative's first offering will be a mini-elective course, "The Natural History of Medicine" for first-year medical students. It will cover the evolutionary origins of human disease, including the history of disease-causing pathogens, a topic that should help students better understand relevant contemporary public health concerns, such as avian flu, and think about treatment and prevention approaches that modern society may have overlooked.
"This course, which is one-of-a-kind, represents just one way we hope to expand students' horizons about how medicine is a single discipline within the broad domain of natural sciences, and how understanding the natural sciences will enhance learning about medicine. Our students and our faculty, me included, have so much to learn from the museum's eminent researchers," stated Dr. Mahoney.
As part of the initiative, students will receive instruction by four of the museum's world-class scientists. In addition to Dr. Beard, the others involved are Zhe-Xi Luo, Ph.D., curator of vertebrate paleontology and associate director for research and collections, who is considered one of the world's leading authorities on the evolution of the earliest mammals; Sandra L. Olsen, Ph.D., curator of anthropology, whose work focuses on cultures in north-central Kazakhstan from the Neolithic to Bronze Age; and John Wible, Ph.D., curator and head, section of mammals, whose work includes the evolutionary history of mammals and the evolution of the mammalian skull.
The museum offers the medical school access to one of the largest and most important natural history collections in the world, which includes dinosaur fossils displaying evidence of cancer and gout, and hundreds of thousands of other species available for study. For their part, the museum will have access to the newest generation of medical technologies, including computed tomography (CT) scanners and electron microscopes, which will enable its researchers to engage in cutting-edge studies that help identify the significance of its vast and varied collection.
The museum has already taken advantage of the partnership. Making use of the most state-of-the-art CT technology, the researchers worked with imaging specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to scan the spine and pelvis of a Camptosaurus, a Jurassic dinosaur. In order to exhibit the fossil in the museum's Dinosaurs in Their World expansion project, researchers need to remove the pelvis and tail from its matrix. While in the matrix, the fossil's ossified tendons are preserved, but the process of fully preparing the fossil, or removing it from the rock, would destroy them, representing an unfortunate loss to the scientific community. The CT scan, performed in December 2005, has produced 3-D digital views, thereby "preserving" the tendons and enabling museum researchers to conduct additional studies.
The museum also will be scanning a fossil of a primitive lizard-like creature that lived in the Pennsylvanian Period about 300 million years ago. Museum researchers are hoping the CT scan will reveal some of the sutures between skull bones that are currently obscured by matrix. Such information will help characterize this new genus and species.
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