Cloning for the future

Australia is the first country to allow a domestic firm (Sydney IVF) to legally clone embryos. This process uses in vitro fertilization, extracting embryonic stem cells from the pre-fetus blastocysts. In this brave new world we’re living in, disorders like Huntington’s Disease and muscular dystrophy may one day be cured by creating custom body tissue and disease-free cells to implant into patients.

We have waited a long time for a government to take this risk. Introducing cloning in a controlled manner will hopefully minimize public outcry and temper the demands of the religious right. Australia has made it clear that the technology will not be abused—there’s no risk of any cloned embryos developing into fetuses (the process is halted before the zygote resembles a human). All animals look similar during the first few weeks of pregnancy: a great mass of rapidly expanding cells. By ensuring that there is no developing fetus, Sydney IVF violates few ethical boundaries. Any eggs used will either be immature or unfertilized, and obtained with full consent of the donor.

In terms of scientific achievement, Canadians are at a crossroads. If we embrace the good that will come from the proliferation of stem cell extraction and embryonic cloning, we’ll challenge a widespread myopic view on ethics and human rights. The technology is still in its infancy, so there is little opportunity for abuse. Once it matures, the realization that stem cells can cure diseases will grow. We can continue devoting millions of dollars to raising money for a multitude of diseases, but we must acknowledge that we are sitting on a potential goldmine. The only thing keeping us from utilizing this resource is the limited scope of our own understanding.

Humans will not be cloned. At no point in the near future will we be able to ask our GP to give our son or daughter blue eyes or a high IQ. These advances are too distant to pose an ethical problem. We need to legalize embryonic cloning so that we can fight disease and begin to embrace a future where life-saving knowledge is not limited.

Western society must surrender its perverted concept of what constitutes a life. Sydney IVF is not killing babies—it’s helping to prevent diseases for children in the future. It’s taking a hitherto speculative science and making it a reality, thereby bringing it to a level where it may affect common people. If Canada and the United States follow suit, your next charity run may be for an actual cure.

Tasteless jokes not grounds for termination

130 years ago this week, the muckraking author Upton Sinclair was born. Sinclair is probably best known for his novel The Jungle, which documented the deplorable health and working conditions at turn-of-the-century stockyards in Chicago. So horrifyingly accurate was Sinclair’s depiction that upon reading the novel, President Teddy Roosevelt took action immediately. The result was the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which revolutionized the food inspection process in the United States. Similar action was taken in Canada, though it was not until 1997 that one mega-bureaucracy—the Canadian Food Inspection Agency—was made responsible for food safety, operating within the Ministry of Agriculture.

Sadly, it seems that some lessons must be learned the hard way. The listeria outbreak has killed 17 Canadians and hospitalized more. There is reason to believe that the contaminated meat could have been detected had the CFIA inspected food processing outlets with greater frequency. The outbreak could have been avoided, but mistakes were made and now people are suffering.

Naturally, there are some doom-and-gloom types who find other peoples’ deaths hilarious. Apparently, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz is one of them. “Death by a thousand cold cuts” is how Ritz referred to the crisis during a conference call among senior bureaucrats, according to reports. He also expressed hopes that his opposition critic was among the victims of the outbreak. Ritz has been duly lambasted as a tasteless SOB, and opposition leaders are demanding that he be fired.

But is being a tasteless SOB enough of a reason to fire someone? More specifically, is it a reason to fire Gerry Ritz?

While I’ll freely admit Ritz’s comments were in bad taste, haven’t we all, at some point in time, told an insensitive joke? Or chuckled at off-colour comments at a party? And if our friend told us the listeriosis joke, wouldn’t we laugh and then refresh our drink?

We all enjoy a little dark humor now and again. Maybe it’s cognitive dissonance; I’ll leave the explanations to the psychologists. So who are we, the tasteless-joke-tellers and off-colour-name-callers of the world, to call for Ritz’s head?

Though I’m no Harper supporter (I’d like to buy him a corned beef sandwich), I defend his decision to stand behind Ritz in the name of common sense—a bad joke is not grounds for termination. If you want to call for Ritz’s removal, focus on the real actions that could have been taken to prevent this outbreak from happening—not his questionable sense of humour.

Getting to know you

Jonathan Demme is nothing but enthusiastic. The director of Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia sits next to Anne Hathaway at a roundtable interview to promote Rachel Getting Married, responding to each routine question as if it’s the most fascinating thing in the whole wide world. When he says a word like “major,” he tends to close his eyes, scrunch up his face, and strongly exaggerate the first syllable. When someone refers to the “train-wreck dinner toast” delivered by Hathaway, he squints and groans, as if remembering a particularly painful injury. Other questions are answered with liberal amounts of nodding, laughing, and hand waving.

I like this guy.

“A studio ne-e-e-ver would have approved a script like that, with all these ma-a-a-a-dening characters,” says Demme of the film, an independent production shot using digital video. “And, that’s the thing—I’ve got to make movies. That’s [how important] my work has been in my life, y’know, and I lo-o-ve it. So if it’s wo-o-onderful in a m-i-i-llion ways to make a big-budget movie and work with fantastic stars and all the technology and be so well paid and stuff…”

He has digressed. “But if you are excited by trying to do something different, then the lower the budget, the more wiggle-room there is to try stuff out.” He goes on to describe the stereotype of the independent studio, lowering his brow and spitting out the words, “Penny-pinching, tight-fisted…”

“That’s the best Woody Allen I’ve ever heard,” adds Hathaway.

In Rachel Getting Married, Hathaway plays Kim, a recovering drug addict returning home from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Relations among the family are strained, to say the least. The film has garnered Demme’s strongest reviews since Silence of the Lambs, and Hathaway’s performance has inspired that most pretentious of industry phrases, “Oscar buzz.”

Hathaway remarks that the character changed her life. How so?

“We all have warts,” she says. “Not physically, obviously, you bloggers…”

The laughter subsides. “But we all have faults and things that are difficult to handle, and so often we feel compelled to pretend that we don’t. And I think that we could give each other more credit, and be more accepting of each other. That’s the thing I just love about Kim. Kim has so much more going on, and if you know how hard Kim is working to stay sober, you put up with her acid one-liners and her misbehavior because she’s dealing with an epic struggle.”

When Hathaway is asked about how her recent roles have strayed from her Disney-friendly image, she denies even thinking about it. Demme interrupts. “Can I ask a question?” He adopts a wacky voice: “Are you saying it wasn’t cool to do something completely different?!”

Hathaway, the Bud Abbott of the duo, replies, “Well of course it was cool to do something completely different…it was cool because you’re a fucking great director!”

“It’s scary to do something r-e-e-al different, though,” says Demme.

“No it wasn’t! I was never scared! I don’t know what that says about me, but I was never, ever, ever scared. Everything always felt right, and I always felt so protected…that if I got scared with this one, then I was just a coward. There was nothing to be scared of. Everything was as good as it could be.”

Demme’s face screws into a scowl as he adopts a James Lipton-esque voice. “Isn’t it true that you could have gotten scared?”

“Is this a taste of what went on during filming?” asks a reporter.

“We didn’t talk to each other!” they say in almost perfect unison. Demme adds, “This is us getting to know each other!”

Rachel Getting Married opens on October 3.

Lear’s crowning glory

Forget the introduction to Shakespeare’s King Lear provided by your high school English class. As Hart House Theatre gears up for its fast-paced, visually stunning season opener, director Jeremy Hutton reflects on gearing his show to the masses.

“This play was viewed by real crowds,” says Hutton. In it’s original time this included audiences who ate during the play, took bathroom breaks and missed chunks of the performance. “The play is exciting and exhilarating. It draws people in, then punches them in the gut.” But something doesn’t seem right. He couldn’t be describing the same King Lear that you yawned over as a teenager.

Don’t remember that exam? Directly from your copy of Coles Notes, King Lear opens with a British monarch soliciting professions of love from his three daughters to designate his vast kingdom based on their answers. When the youngest child Cordelia fails to falsely flatter her father, she is disowned and banished to France. The King’s regret seeps in almost immediately, beginning his slow descent into turmoil and madness.

While this could make for a confusing, drawn-out show, Hutton isn’t your typical Shakespearian director. Young and energetic, he can be seen promoting Lear in a casual video on YouTube—the ultimate equalizer. Even Peter Higginson, the Hart House veteran starring in the title role, sees the story of Lear as being accessible to a wide audience.

“We’re dealing with corruption of power and influence,” he notes, “which was a serious problem back in Shakespeare’s time and even today.”

But Hutton isn’t overly concerned with themes and lessons. Though several academics and dramaturges were consulted for the production, the director’s focus is on the key actions that move the story forward. Show-goers can look forward to brisk, filmic transitions, as well as powerful visual summaries replacing complicated syntax. As an added bonus, Hutton is set to “reveal” some unexplained details, for instance the fate of the Fool, who disappears from Shakespeare’s text after Act III.

King Lear also marks the first occasion for Hart House Theatre patrons to see the venue’s brand new lobby. The historic renovation fits in well with the show: Lear was last performed at Hart House in the 1950s, in what was presumably a more academic production. Most importantly, though, Hutton promises that Lear, which lasts “under three hours,” will grab you unexpectedly, but keep you rewardingly engaged. Could you have say that much about your high school English teacher?

Bee research offers insight into climate change

Jessica Forrest, a PhD student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, examines the toll of changing temperatures on the interaction between bees and the plants they pollinate.

Her experiments began in 2006 in the Colorado mountains. “Working in the mountains provides a good elevation gradient, and different sites experience different season lengths, which is representative of the variation in climate change,” explains Forrest. The main research site is at a 3000 metre elevation, where air temperatures can drop down to -20 degrees Celsius in the winter. Summer conditions are similar to those experienced in Toronto, with temperatures reaching 25 degrees in the day, but cool off significantly to about five degrees at night.

To attract bees to her study site, Forrest placed trap-nests for leaf-cutter bees and their larvae at various elevations. “The bees find these trap-nests and then they [provision holes in wood with pollen and nectar for their larvae],” says Forrest. “[The trap-nests] were colonized last summer and this summer I went out and monitored these nests every three days or so to see how many bees had come out [in each time interval].” She has recorded which flowers bloom simultaneously with bee emergence to see whether the two organisms are controlled by the same environmental factors.

Many plants rely on certain pollinators being present when they’re in bloom. However, changing climate conditions have the potential to cause organisms to alter their biological timing. Increased temperatures could cause earlier snowmelts, which would trigger flowers to bloom earlier. If flowers are in bloom but lack the bees to pollinate them, it could have a serious impact on the plants’ population. Forrest wants to determine if, even in early snowmelt years, bees are available to pollinate alpine bluebells, which blossom soon after snowmelt.

Her preliminary data shows no significant decoupling between flowers that bloom and the number of bees that pollinate them. “The pollinators are actually responding to similar cues,” she says. “They are managing to stay in sync it seems, but I could be telling a different story next year.” Forrest stresses that while her findings are still in the preliminary stage, her research details a significant change.

Is there a link between the bee-bluebell interaction and climate change? As the study site climate varies year-to-year, plant pollinators might be relatively used to an alteration in temperature. If a separation between plants and pollinators is observed, it’s possible that the plants will be able to self-pollinate or attract other species. Forrest notes a possibility for evolutionary change. “If bees are emerging before there are any plants around, natural selection will act to change their timing of emergence.”

Forrest hopes to finish her study in the next two years. After its completion, she plans to examine the consequences for bees that emerge too early. She is also interested in investigating the basic biology of bees for signs of evolution, especially in their flexibility of food choice.

Despite the impact of climate change, for now it’s business as usual for the bees in Colorado. Forrest seems content with her work, saying, “It’s not a bad job. Working in a field of flowers and watching bees sure beats working at a desk all the time!”

Media ejected from ASSU vote

Current and former Arts and Science Students’ Union executives forced Victoria University camera crew from a council meeting Monday evening, citing non-existent legislation. The open meeting saw the council vote on forming ASSU’s impartial election committee and a panel to review its constitution.

According to VUTube president Doug Sarro, Sheila Hewlett, one of the two remaining ASSU execs from those elected last year, approached the camera crew before the began to warn them that ASSU bylaws prohibit filming without unanimous consent. Sarro, who had access to the bylaws and constitution, found that no such provision exists, and he stayed put.

“As the location of yesterday’s meeting was never released on ASSU’s website, VUTube’s coverage would have been the only opportunity for ASSU’s thousands of fees-paying members to observe what happened at that meeting,” he added.

The crew filmed for half an hour, documenting debate over the meeting’s agenda without complaint. However, before the meeting could move past procedural issues, execs told the chair to refer the matter of the filming to council.

One council member said she did not want to be filmed but did not mind audio recording. Sarro offered to omit the images of anyone who did not approve of being filmed. The chair, suggested that the matter be left between the media and those who declared discomfort, but Hewlett interjected, “If anybody is uncomfortable being filmed, we’re not filming this.”

Following objection from two members, including former ASSU exec Krystyne James, the VUTube crew put the lens cap on their camera and continued recording the meeting’s audio. Minutes later James objected to being audio recorded as well. James is one of several former execs involved in altering minutes from ASSU’s previous election meetings, as uncovered by The Varsity last week.

James sought a position on the election committee, but withdrew after an ASSU staffer reminded the council that James had served on last year’s exec.

Hewlett said she had previously referred the matter of filming meetings to a lawyer, and been advised that media should have unanimous consent. She did not name the lawyer or the law involved. Under sustained pressure, the VUTube crew eventually left the meeting before the matter of elections was raised.

With files from Naushad Ali Husein

Huge pain, no gain

Everyone experiences pain. In fact, it’s a healthy physical response that keeps us alert to danger and helps avoid injury. But what if an ache started one day and didn’t go away? Worse yet, what if no one—including your doctor—knew what was going on, or how to make it stop?

It’s hard to imagine, but this is a reality for many suffering from chronic neuropathic pain. Fortunately, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Pain are making in roads into the treatment of this complex condition, gaining profound insights into our brain and how it works.

Neuropathic pain is caused by damage to the nervous system, which is made up of the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord), and the peripheral nervous system (the sensory and motor neurons and nerves in the rest of the body). It can be brought on by a number of different conditions, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, viral infections like AIDS, and even routine surgery. Yet, its trigger remains a mystery.

Though it is often described as a burning, numbing, or stabbing sensation, neuropathic pain can differ greatly depending on an individual’s experience. It can happen spontaneously, or in response to stimuli under which normal circumstances would cause no pain at all. For those suffering from this condition, even the lightest touch can be excruciating. Unlike nociceptive pain, which is felt in response to tissue damage and dissipates once the injury has healed, chronic neuropathic pain often occurs completely out of the blue. Like its name suggests, the sensation can persist for months, years, or even a lifetime.

Dr. Thuan Dao, an Associate Professor with the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Dentistry, is a researcher attempting to gain a better understanding of neuropathic pain. She is interested in orofacial neuropathic pain, which affects the face and inside the mouth. Currently testing a medication called pregabalin, Dao and her team believe it could offer relief to sufferers of orofacial neuropathic pain.

It is thought that orofacial neuropathic pain is triggered by injury to the nerves during routine dental procedures like root canal treatment, surgery, or filling a deep cavity. Dr. Dao is quick to point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean a dentist is doing their job incorrectly; it may simply be that a person’s anatomy or genetic background makes them more prone to this type of injury or pain.

Neuropathic pain is prone to misdiagnosis, as it can appear long after treatment in locations far away from the initial procedure. Health professionals often intervene without understanding the neuropathic nature of their patient’s discomfort. This can have unfortunate consequences: one patient’s misdiagnosis resulted in 32 root canals, after which he still had a toothache.

When asked why the pain continues after the damaged nerve heals, Dr. Dao exclaimed, “That is the million dollar question!” The key to understanding nerve pain is in the continuous remodeling of the peripheral and central nervous system, known as neuroplasticity. After an injury changes the periphery of the nervous system, it can lead to further effects all the way up into the spinal cord and the brain. These changes occur down to gene level, resulting in a continuous reverberation of the pain signal long after the initial stimulus has stopped.

Once patients have received a diagnosis, they are usually treated with a cocktail of antidepressants, anticonvulsants, opioids, and canabinoids. These drugs interfere with the ability of nervous system cells to communicate with each another, effectively blocking the pain signal from reaching or being commanded by the brain. Ideally, Dr. Dao says, the neurons that are misfiring eventually “go to sleep,” as the patient is weaned off the medication.

An effective drug cocktail is found for only half to a third of all patients, and some can have long-term side effects. A small percentage of patients are forced to seek invasive surgical intervention such as deep brain stimulation. In this therapy, electrodes that deliver electrical impulses are inserted deep into the brain. How this treatment works is still unclear, though it appears to interfere with the neural activity at the insertion site, disrupting the pain signal. Hopefully, research done at the Centre for the Study of Pain will someday bring lasting relief to sufferers of neuropathic pain, making these treatments a distant memory.

New research hopes to gain a better understanding of neuroplasticity and why some patients respond better to certain therapies than others. This will allow for better screening and more effective, individualized treatments. New drugs and vaccines are also being developed to treat diseases that trigger neuropathic pain.

Province unveils integrated transit network proposal

Metrolinx, the agency in charge of the city’s transit makeover, unveiled its long-awaited $50-billion plan to expand the transportation system throughout the GTA. The 25-year plan is the largest of its kind in North America in more than half a century.

Metrolinx chair Rob MacIsaac ruled out funding the initiative through a dramatic fare increase, promising no new fees or tolls until 2013. However, the plan fails to outline who will foot the bill.

The plan aims to have 75 per cent of GTA residents living within 2 km of a rapid transit line, up from 42 per cent today.

Despite this modest progress of saving five minutes a day, MacIsaac argued that the new transit spending is essential. Toronto is estimated to grow by 2.6 million people over the next 25 years, “Not proceeding with this plan would be higher than the cost of proceeding with it. We cannot be scared away from this challenge,” he said.

Metrolinx has identified eight goals, few of which are likely to appeal to students. Among these are implementing a complete walking and cycling network with bike-sharing programs. U of T students who live in the 905 region may benefit from an integrated transit fare system based on the “smart card” model that has been adopted in cities such as Montreal and Madrid. A high tech information system will help passengers plan their trip and pay either online or by phone. Finally, Metrolinx plans to create a network of connected mobility hubs. The plan calls for hubs to be more than just stations, but rather destinations unto themselves.

Andrae Griffith, a student at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning who sits on the Regional Transportation Plan Advisory Committee. noted, “There will be about 7000 km of bike lanes and I think a lot of students will definitely appreciate that infrastructure.”

Rachel Strong, a fourth-year student from Richmond Hill, thinks that the transit system definitely needs to be upgraded. “I drive to school everyday,” she said. “If I could get downtown faster and without having to hop from one bus to the next, then for sure I would consider it.”