What can prehistoric animals teach us about human anatomy? Plenty, it turns out

Computational anatomist Jack Tseng, PhD, was recruited to the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to apply his expertise on mammalian structure and function to humans


Release Date: November 6, 2017 This content is archived.

“What if by using nature-inspired implants, we could not only restore function but improve it? ”
Jack Tseng, PhD, Assistant professor, Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ancient mammals. Prehistoric hyenas. The evolution of dogs. Not your typical research subjects for a medical school faculty member, but then Jack Tseng, PhD, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences, is not a typical medical school faculty member.

Tseng, an evolutionary biologist who specializes in studying the craniodental systems (skulls) of mammals, is part of a small but growing trend at medical schools that are hiring researchers who study prehistoric species in order to shed light on human anatomy.

When he interviewed at the Jacob School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences last year, Tseng said he was struck by the interest his chair, John Tomaszewski, MD, had in how paleontology and paleobiology might impact the study of anatomy.

“Dr. Tomaszewski was interested in the fact that I look at anatomical changes over the geologic time scale. He believes it can be very useful and illuminating for clinical research,” Tseng said.

The hiring of Tseng, a computational anatomist, and others with computational backgrounds, is helping to bring a more quantitative, technology-based focus to the study of anatomy at UB. And while Tseng’s focus has been on creatures from the distant past, the tools he uses to do it are entirely cutting-edge.

That’s not accidental since Tseng grew up in Silicon Valley and attended the University of California at Berkeley intending to study computer science. Somewhere in his undergraduate career, he developed a passion for paleontology. But Tseng found that digital tools were extremely useful in studying ancient mammals.

 “As an undergrad, I was split between working in research laboratories in traditional paleontology and also biomechanics, to look at long-term anatomical changes in mammalian skeletons in one, and how biological materials withstand very large forces in the other,” Tseng explains. “Now my job is a combination of computing, anatomy, and biomechanics: I get to do all of it. My interests came full circle.”

He earned his doctorate in integrative and evolutionary biology at the University of Southern California and then spent several years at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as a fellow studying mostly extinct carnivores.

He still studies prehistoric species and recently co-authored a paper that received significant media attention on the origins of the beardog, an extinct but ferocious early ancestor of dogs.

Now at UB, he teaches gross anatomy, using computational tomography (CT) technology to develop virtual and 3-D printed models that provide medical students with a deeper understanding of how anatomical structures function.

He also applies his expertise on mammalian structure and function to humans, using digital tools to explore relationships between musculoskeletal structure and function, an area of intense interest for bioengineers and orthopaedic researchers who seek more effective orthopaedic implants for an aging population.

The conventional bioengineering premise dictates that when replacing human bones, the goal is to restore function by using materials that don’t deteriorate as rapidly as biological material, but basically retaining the same shape as the structure being replaced.

“But I think there’s a better way,” says Tseng. “What can we learn from nature? Think about the evolutionary history of mammals: There is a set of scientific experiments that has already been conducted, with many more replicates than possible in even the largest laboratories. What if by using nature-inspired implants, we could not only restore function but improve it?”

Tseng also is collaborating with researchers at the School of Dental Medicine to study biomechanical questions related to temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ), looking at how the shape of the jaw affects function and the force of the bite.

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