Science Interviews

Interview

Tue, 17th Jun 2014

3D print shows king had scoliosis

Piers Mitchell, Division of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge

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Scientists at Cambridge University have used a 3D printer to reconstruct the spine Scoliosisof King Richard III, whose 500 year old remains were discovered buried beneath a car-park in Leicester in 2012. The results, which were published in the Lancet medical journal, confirm that the king had an s-shaped twist to his spine called scoliosis. Graihagh Jackson asked Piers Mitchell, from the University of Cambridge about what was found.

Piers - The body itself was excavated by Joe Appleby who works at the University of Leicester. She was as surprised as everyone else to find this skeleton so early on in the excavation of the friary. She identified that there was a burial lying on its back that had a clear spinal deformity. What was interesting was that the grave wasn’t quite long enough for him so that his head is all scrunched up. So, it looks very much like this was a fairly hastily buried person and not someone who was buried in pomp and circumstance as we might expect a ruler who died when there wasn’t going to be a change of dynasty.

Graihagh - So, describe to me what we’re seeing in this picture and what led you to believe that this might be in fact King Richard.

Piers - When you look at this burial, we can see that there's a marked curve to the spine in the thoracic area of the spine. So, that’s the part of the spine where the rib cage is and this shows that this person had a deformity of their spine in life.

Graihagh - So, the spine was a particular interest. What sort of process did this spine undergo?

Piers - The first thing to do was to look at the spine in the ground, take appropriate photographs so we can then measure angles later. And then having excavated the skeleton and cleaned all the bones, we can look at each individual bone and see if they look normal or abnormal. Then the bones underwent further imaging with CT scanning which allows you to do a 3D reconstruction virtually on a computer. The guys at Loughborough used a clever programme to then print these bones using a special plastic polymer. So, the printout basically looks like white plastic bones.  And then to recreate everything, my colleague at Leicester, Bruno Morgan, took the bones and re-aligned them and this then allowed us to create a 3D version of the spine. Because when you look down at a burial, you can only really see it in 2 dimensions.


The Skeleton of King Richard IIIOnce we created a 3D recreation of the spine, we can actually see that this was a spiral twist. That’s very much what we see in modern patients today with scoliosis. The original photographs showed that he had a scoliosis which had about 70 to 80 degrees of curve which is quite significant. Using modern evidence from patients who have a scoliosis of this degree of curve, we can start to consider how much it would’ve affected him. So, most people think he must've been in loads of pain with a curve like that. In fact, a lot of people with scoliosis don’t get any pain in their back.

The second thing to think about is his appearance. If you have a straight spine, you're going to be a bit taller and if your spine is twisted. And so, looking at modern patients, we can estimate that he would’ve been about 2 inches shorter than he would otherwise have been if he’d had a normal spine. However, we can see that the top and bottom of his spine were absolutely normal. So, those bones in his neck and in his lumber spine were fine. So, he wouldn’t have had a tilt to his head. He would’ve had a normal, forward-looking head with normal neck movements. So, a lot of the things we see in Richard III’s description by Shakespeare aren't borne out by the evidence either of the burial in the ground, or of the reconstruction that we’ve made. Shakespeare is clearly writing over a century after Richard III died and so, there's no way Shakespeare would’ve ever met Richard III and probably, never met anyone that had seen Richard III. So Shakespeare was right that Richard had a spinal deformity, but he was wrong in that he would probably not have had the limp that Shakespeare described. He probably wouldn’t have had a significant hunchback. And similarly, there's no evidence for a withered arm as well. So, the bones of the arms and the legs, all look perfectly symmetric.

Graihagh - So, what's next on the cards with Richard III’s remains? Are there any remaining mysteries to be solved?

Piers - Further research that is ongoing is looking at the weapon injuries that he has, looking at his genetics partially to see if he has any genes that might predispose scoliosis. But also, to look at other information we can tell from him. For example, certain genes tell you what colour eyes, hair and so on, an individual had.

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