A new medical school course at the University of Pittsburgh has would-be doctors diagnosing illnesses in long-extinct animals.

It’s hard to imagine a doctor wrapping a T. Rex’s giant, scaly claw in a splint or lifting a triceratops’s nasal horn to insert a dino-sized thermometer in its mouth. But, through an innovative course created in the paleontology department of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, first-year medical students at the University of Pittsburgh have the option of combining their accumulating medical know-how with some functional knowledge of prehistoric human and dinosaur diseases.

The anachronistic curriculum is the brainchild of John Lazo, a pharmacologist at Pittsburgh’s medical school, and Christopher Beard, the curator and head of the vertebrate paleontology section of the museum.

“The common thread,” said Beard, “is evolution. We recognized that basic principles of evolution that scientists, like myself, study all the time are actually very important for physicians to understand, if only in order to be able to explain to their patients some of the reasons behind the predicaments that they face.”

Beard, who won a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2000, pointed to natural selection among viruses as one example of a medical issue with evolutionary trimmings. He added that many modern diseases have their origins in large evolutionary shifts, such as the human transition from walking on all fours to walking upright. Listing a series of ailments that humans incurred when we stood on two legs for the first time, including lower back pain and pregnancy complications, Beard said that transition may be the source of problems addressed by everyone from orthopedic surgeons to OB-GYNs.

“There are plenty of medical conditions today that afflict humans that come directly out of our evolution from our ape-like ancestors,” he said.

According to Beard, medical conditions in ancient human societies may also provide a mirror for modern-day diseases in the developing world. He believes a physician schooled in prehistoric medicine may be able to make better diagnoses when faced with a less common disease like syphilis or tuberculosis.

“It turns out that in many living human populations, especially in the developing world, the best analogies for health conditions that one can have are archaeological societies,” Beard said.

The connection to paleontology is also valuable as a teaching tool, said Lazo, who noted that a focus on evolution could spice up otherwise dry classes.

“Anatomy can be incredibly boring,” he said. He later added that the topic comes alive “when you talk about: ‘How did we evolve?’ or ‘Why is the human body the way it is?’”

Lazo hopes that the course will lead to greater creativity and more multidisciplinary work among his medical students.

“We’re hoping that a small set of our students that are really talented will say, ‘Gee whiz, here’s a resource that could influence my practice if I’m a radiologist, if I’m an obstetrician, if I’m a general practitioner,’” he said.

While the evolution of human disease is central to the course, the syllabus will also include dinosaur sicknesses.

Paleontologists at the Carnegie Museum recently discovered a fossilized tumor in the bone of a Jurassic dinosaur, which is Lazo’s “very favorite fossil.” Knowing the reptilian history of a disease like cancer, Beard said, might prove reassuring to a contemporary patient.

“Maybe it gives a patient a little bit of psychological relief to know that cancer’s been around a long, long time,” he said, “and that it afflicts other species besides humans.”

Originally published March 8, 2006

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