Understanding past populations

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The UK has the highest rate of Paget’s bone disease in the world, but now researchers from LJMU, the Paget’s Association and Norton Priory Museum Trust are analysing ancient bones to better understand the progression of the disease, which may permit earlier diagnosis. 

Paget’s disease disrupts the normal cycle of bone renewal and repair, causing bones to become weakened and deformed. It is known to affect up to 1 in 12 older men and 1 in 20 women over the age of 80. But symptoms often only show at the later stages.

Diana Wilkinson, Specialist’s Paget’s Nurse of the Paget’s Association explains: “The North West of England is known to have the highest prevalence of Paget’s disease and evidence of the condition has been found in 1 in 20 skeletons, believed to date from the 13th to the 15th centuries, unearthed in an archaeological dig at the Priory.”

LJMU houses a collection of over 1,000 skeletons and is one of only a few universities to have a dedicated x-ray machine so enhancing research capabilities to check for early stage disease within the bone.

Pagets disease research Carla L Burrell, a volunteer at Norton Priory and an LJMU PhD student (pictured opposite), will be presenting at the Paget’s Association Information Day held in Derby this May. She describes her research: ”What we have found is that Paget’s bone disease occurs at a younger age than previously thought long before symptoms come to full effect, which means that diagnosis could take place for young people and treatment could start earlier.”

Carla’s talk, ‘An osteoarchaeologist’s perspective on Paget's Disease’, will discuss the forthcoming research on the identification and occurrence of Paget’s Disease in the human remains collection.

Dr James C Ohman, LJMU Senior Lecturer in Palaeoanthropology, adds: “Our research on the skeletal collections housed at LJMU has greatly expanded over the last few years. In addition to Paget’s Disease, our research has now expanded to include studies on human growth and development, nutrition and diet, multidisciplinary approaches, and new accurate method for estimating sex from the pelvis. The impact of these studies improve our understanding of past populations, the identification of human remains, and may be used to support the work being done by the Paget’s Association.”

Norton Priory houses about 130 medieval skeletons; six have been identified with Paget’s Disease. Lynn Smith, Senior Keeper, has made possible a collaboration with LJMU to re-analyse these skeletons and further examine the disease. Additionally, a £3.7m Heritage Lottery Fund project is now underway to conserve the undercroft and redevelop Norton Priory Museum Trust. The new museum will allow the human remains being analysed as a part of this project to be displayed as never before. Professor Bill Fraser, Trustee of the Paget’s Association, is providing scientific advice to the team at Norton Priory and scientists at LJMU, the University of Nottingham, and the University of Leicester.

Professor Roger Francis, Chairman of the Paget’s Association, explains: “The intention is to perform the first molecular analyses on some of the remains with the hope of identifying why there was such a high prevalence of Paget’s Disease at Norton Priory, while others at Norton Priory and LJMU are helping to bring the ‘remains to life’ by providing insights into what life was like in the past for those affected by Paget’s Disease. The team at Norton Priory were keen to involve those afflicted with the condition, and so we are delighted that our Specialist Paget’s Nurse was invited with the Manchester Paget’s Support Group to Norton Priory to assist their team in making the proposed new displays relevant to modern day audiences.”

Caption: Carla L Burrell, PhD student in Biological Anthropology, and Dr James C Ohman, Senior Lecturer in Palaeoanthrology, examine a skeleton from the Norton Priory with advanced Paget's Disease of the Bone present in all the bones.


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