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February 2, 2009 — 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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Human embryonic stem cells grown in the UConn Stem Cell Core Laboratory. Image courtesy of the UConn Health Center.

WTIC.com/stemcell, January 31, 2009, by Matt Dwyer — President Barack Obama is expected to loosen Bush administration rules on embryonic stem cell funding.

Currently, the federal government withholds funding for research on embryonic stem cell lines created after 2001.

Here in Connecticut, UConn Health Center Genetics Professor Marc Lalande says it is clear the new administration supports federal funding for the research.

“The whole stem cell research community in the United States is looking forward to this,” Lalande says. “We think this is going to happen.

“It will be absolutely great because it will allow us to expand our programs using federal funding,” Lalande says.

But he also says he is not sure when a change might be made, or how much money would actually be available, in the bad economy.

Lalande says the UConn Stem Cell Core laboratory recently created two new human embryonic stem cell lines, using state and university funding — but NO federal money.

The CT1 and CT2 lines are the first created in Connecticut.

UConn researchers may use them to search for ways to treat severe bone injuries by regrowing bones.

Lalande says fhe stem cells come from unused fertility clinic embryos.

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PFCs may make it more difficult for some women to get pregnant

Chemicals commonly found in food packaging, upholstery and carpets may be damaging women’s fertility, say US scientists.

BBC.com, January 31, 2009 — A study published in the journal Human Reproduction measured levels of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in the blood of 1,240 women.

Those with higher levels were more likely to take longer to become pregnant.

UK experts said more research was needed to confirm a link.

PFCs are useful in industry because they are resistant to heat, and have the ability to repel water and oil.

However, high concentrations have been linked to organ damage in animals, and the chemicals have the ability to persist for long periods in the body.

The researchers, from the University of California in Los Angeles, analysed blood samples taken at the time of the woman’s first antenatal visit, then interviewed the women about whether the pregnancy was planned, and how long it had taken them to get pregnant.

The levels of the chemicals varied from 6.4 nanograms per millilitre of blood – a nanogram is a billionth of a gram – to 106.4 nanograms per ml.

When the group of women were divided into four groups depending on these levels, they found that, compared to women in the group with the lowest readings, the likelihood of infertility – taking more than a year or IVF to get pregnant – was significantly higher for women with higher levels of PFCs in their bloodstream.

Dr Chunyuan Fei, one of the researchers, said that earlier studies had suggested that PFCs might impair the growth of babies in the womb.

She said that more women in the groups with higher exposure to PFCs had problems with irregular menstrual cycles , which might suggest that interference with hormones was the reason.

‘Tenuous link’

Professor Jorn Olsen, who led the study, said that the team were now waiting for further studies to confirm the link between fertility problems and PFCs.

Tony Rutherford, chairman of the British Fertility Society, said that the findings were “interesting”.

“This research shows a tenuous link in the delay to conception in women with the highest levels of two commonly-used perfluorinated chemicals.

“It is an important finding and certainly warrants further detailed research, particularly in those trying for a family.

“The study emphasises the importance of remaining vigilant to potential environmental factors that may impact on fertility.”

A new brain imaging study illustrates what happens to memories as time goes by. The study, in the January 28 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, shows that distinct brain structures are involved in recalling recent and older events.

The findings support earlier studies of memory-impaired patients with damage limited to the hippocampus. These patients show deficits in learning new information and in recalling events that occurred just prior to their injuries. However, they are able to recall older events, which are thought to involve other regions of the brain, particularly the cortex.

“It has long been known that older memories are more resistant to hippocampal damage than newer memories, and this was thought to reflect the fact that the hippocampus becomes less involved in remembering as a memory gets older,” said Russell Poldrack, PhD, an expert on the cognitive and neural mechanisms of memory at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study. “However, there has been a recent debate over whether the hippocampus ever really stops being involved, even for older memories,” Poldrack said.

To address this debate, Christine Smith, PhD, and Larry Squire, PhD, at the University of California, San Diego and the San Diego VA Medical Center, imaged study participants as they answered 160 questions about news events that occurred over the past 30 years. The hippocampus and related brain structures were most active when recalling recent events. Hippocampal activity gradually declined as participants recalled events that were 1-12 years old and remained low when they recalled events that were 13-30 years old.

In contrast, Smith and Squire found the opposite pattern of activity in frontal, temporal, and parietal cortices. In these brain regions — which are located at the surface of the brain — activity increased with the age of the news event recalled. “Our findings support the idea that these cortical regions are the ultimate repositories for long-term memory,” Smith said. The researchers found that brain activity was unrelated to the richness of memories or to the recollection of personal events related to the tested news events.

“This is the best evidence to date supporting a long-held view about how memories become permanent,” said Howard Eichenbaum, PhD, an expert on memory at Boston University who was unaffiliated with the study.

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Institute of Mental Health, the Metropolitan Life Foundation, and the National Institute on Aging.

Source: Society for Neuroscience.