Woolly mammoth tusk may help researchers understand osteoporosis

The tusks of a woolly mammoth skull discovered in Canada's Yukon Territory may contribute to osteoporosis research by helping investigators understand the mechanism by which the disease destroys bone tissue.

Found by archaeologist Grant Zazula in an operating gold mine, the tusks came out of the earth attached to a complete skull, one of the only intact specimens Zazula could recall, according to CBC News.

He recently donated one of the tusks, which the news source said weighs more than 20 pounds, to physiologist Stephen Sims of the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at London's University of Western Ontario.

According to the Toronto Sun, Sims plans to slice the tusk into tens of thousands of wafer-sized sheets of bone, which he will use to observe how osteoclasts eat away bone in people with osteoporosis.

Osteoclasts are naturally occurring bone cells that break down the mineral structure of bone tissue. They complement osteoblasts, which create bone tissue, and the two types of cells regulate bone growth and density by operating at a roughly equal rate.

When osteoclasts destroy bone tissue faster than osteoblasts can replace it, bones begin to weaken and run a higher risk of fracture, which results in osteoporosis.

Sims told the newspaper that he will use special machinery to shave away wafers of the tusk approximately one-third the width of a human hair.

By loading these bits of tissue with osteoclasts and putting them under a microscope, he hopes to be able to observe bone destruction in action.

Sims told the Sun that tusks are technically teeth and that even though they are made of dentine, tusks approximate bone well enough.

The medical researcher added that he hopes that tusk tissue is more transparent than human bone, allowing him a better view of osteoporosis in action.

In the U.S., osteoporosis affects 55 percent of individuals over the age of 50, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. 
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