June 1, 2006 Using medical-physics tools such as CT scans, medical students can learn to recognize a tumor even in a 150-million-year-old dinosaur bone. Paleontologists say the role of disease during evolution can shed light on the origins of some common medical problems. The discovery of osteosarcomas in dinosaur bones has strengthened the idea that dinosaurs grew quickly, more like birds or mammals than like reptiles.
PITTSBURGH--Think you have nothing in common with a Tyrannosaurus rex or animals from the Jurassic era? Think again. A first-of-its-kind program combines med students, paleontologists, and cutting-edge technology ... And the program's founders say doctors of tomorrow will be better ... if they study dinosaurs to uncover prehistoric medical links between the present and the very distant past.
What do dinosaurs have in common with people today? More than you might think! Fossil technicians process dinosaur bones to find out. With the use of medical physics such as a CT scan of a dinosaur bone, paleontologists find themselves light-years ahead.
It's a non-invasive way to see what earlier researchers have only been able to guess.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologist Chris Beard says by studying the evolution of prehistoric animals, today's medical students can understand the origins of some common medical problems.
"This is, as far as we know, the oldest evidence of cancer in the fossil record," he tells DBIS of a softball-sized tumor in a 150-million-year-old dinosaur bone.
First-year med student Katherin Peperzak says, "The first thing I thought was, 'Wow! I didn't realize cancer was that old.'"
Paleontologists learned this is a special kind of cancer called osteosarcoma that, in humans, can develop during a teenage growth spurt.
Beard says these are examples that med students are unlikely to forget. "I think that it'll make them better physicians just in the sense of being able to diagnose a potential osteosarcoma at an early stage," he says. "They'll be more ready to look out for it, just knowing and being exposed to this dramatic example in the past." ...Mysteries from the past, unraveled by research and delicate work in the present.
Paleontologists say they've also gained invaluable insight during their partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. For example, the discovery of the osteosarcoma in the dinosaur bone strengthens the idea that dinosaurs grew quickly, more like birds and mammals do instead of how reptiles grow.
BACKGROUND: Working in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, researchers at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History have discovered a cancerous tumor preserved in the bone of a 150-million-year-old dinosaur.
LOOKING FOR A DINO'S TUMOR: Using state-of-the-art computer tomography (CT) scans, the scientists imaged the spine and pelvis of a Camptosaurus from the Jurassic era (210 million to 140 million years ago.) This preserved the ossified tendons, providing 3D views so that the researchers could conduct additional studies. The museum will also be scanning a fossil of a primitive lizard that lived 300 million years ago. They will be building 3D images from the pictures. They hope that the 3D images will reveal sutures between skull bones, and thus enable them to characterize the dino's genus and species.
LESSONS OF THE PAST: Some of the most common medical ailments have roots that can be traced back millions of years, when our human ancestors evolved from walking on all fours to standing on two legs: back pain, knee problems and hernias, for example. Doctors can gain an edge by studying the past. Understanding the origins of human disease can help identify new ways to prevent and treat them. Partnerships like the one between the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museum -- the first of its kind -- can help reveal those origins. For instance, using what is known about the fossil record and anatomical changes over time, scientists can piece together information about how genetics has influenced evolution, and vice versa. More and more physicians are beginning to realize that medicine itself is evolutionary.
ABOUT FOSSILS: Fossils are the remains of organisms like plants or animals that have been preserved through time, usually found buried within thick layers of sedimentary rock. Sedimentary rock is formed as new layers are added, one over the other, over time, with fossils from that specific time period forming within each layer. Because they occur in chronological order in rock formations, the fossil record is like Earth's diary. When an organism dies, it gradually breaks down so that soft tissue, muscle and internal organs decompose. However bones and teeth are more likely to be preserved, especially if buried under sediment. As the material decays over time, minerals dissolved in surrounding groundwater can seep in. The object maintains its original shape, but is now composed of hard minerals: a fossil.
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.