UTM breakthrough could reduce chemo side effects

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in North America today. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that in 2009 alone, 171,000 Canadians will be diagnosed. While there is no cure yet, a recent discovery at U of T Mississauga may give chemotherapy an added edge in the ongoing battle with this disease.

Patrick T. Gunning, professor in the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences at UTM, is currently working with scientists at the University of Central Florida and Princess Margaret Hospital to improve the treatment of human cancers.

STAT3 (Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription 3), a protein present in cancer cells, causes drug therapy resistance when it pairs up with another copy of itself. Gunning and his team have developed a way to break apart this cancer protein pair, to possibly increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy. His research team has successfully developed inhibitor molecules that work to stop STAT3 protein activity.

“We have managed to develop small molecules that target STAT3–STAT3 protein complexes” said Gunning. Targeting the protein-protein interactions of STAT3 disrupts the protein’s biological function.

Increased STAT3 activity is observed in multiple human cancers and plays a key role in cancer progression. In healthy individuals, STAT3 activity is transitory and highly regulated, lasting only a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. However, in cancer cells STAT3 is for some reason permanently activated, resulting in the expression of genes that promote cancer growth, survival, and differentiation.

Gunning’s research team is currently working to increase the stability and effectiveness of the STAT3 inhibitor molecules. “Our global objective is to develop novel molecular therapeutics to target human cancers. In particular, our research has focused on targeting protein-protein interactions—a particularly difficult medicinal challenge,” Gunning explained.

Traditional chemotherapy induces cell death in both healthy and cancerous cells, resulting in devastating side effects. Gunning’s preliminary STAT3 inhibitors display impressive selectivity for cancer cells over healthy cells, and hold promise for improving the effectiveness of chemotherapeutic techniques.

The team’s discovery highlights the importance and targetablity of protein-protein interactions. Gunning explained, “Despite the important role STAT3 plays in biological function, targeting protein–protein interactions is still regarded as high-risk. We want to illustrate through our molecular therapeutics that these important interactions are targetable and that a greater effort should be made on investigating them. STAT3 protein-protein interactions should be targeted because, if successful, the potential benefits are huge.”

Lead inhibitor compounds are now in pre-clinical trials. Gunning hopes that knocking out STAT3 will make cancer cells more susceptible to antineoplastics, thus reducing the dosage required and subsequently lowering the adverse side-effects associated with aggressive chemotherapy.

The results of this study can be found in the September issue of ChemBioChem: A European Journal of Chemical Biology.

Zero Heroes

As the afternoon closed on Varsity Stadium, Saturday had an unjustly indecisive air for both men’s and women’s Varsity Blues soccer as they came out of what was supposed to be a double-header against the Carleton Ravens.

“Unjust” because both teams are looking strong in the early season.

With the women’s team now 3-0-2 to Carleton’s 2-4-2, it would be reasonable to expect the Blues were anticipating their early-afternoon game until it was cancelled. As was later reported, Carleton suspended the women’s team the day before the game after the team broke the university athletics department’s code of conduct by holding a rookie initiation party where drinking was so excessive that one player was taken to hospital by ambulance. At game time, however, no explanation had been given to Varsity Athletics.

The men’s game, which did go ahead, was a more even match. It’s early going still, but the Blues are ranked second in the OUA East, and the Ravens, third. However, the reality on the field—that the Blues dominated for the majority of the play—didn’t translate to the board, with the game ending in a scoreless draw.

That it did end nil-all speaks to the strength of the Ravens defence, and especially goalie Samuel Hincks, who often had to step into the front-of-net maelstrom, smother the ball, and launch it midfield, only to have it returned to him shortly after. But Carleton showed trouble throughout the game with ball control. As one Blues fan and Ravens heckler noted, you’re supposed to keep the ball off the blue track that surrounds the field.

The Blues, by comparison, were all offense. Fourth-year striker Nordo Gooden’s fancy footwork set the game’s tone—and the fans’ hopes—early on as he showed the Ravens how it’s done, practically dancing the ball down the touchline. Gooden was a clear fan favourite of the game along with second-year midfielder Geoffrey Borgmann, who showed ease turning around an opposing play even while in a crowd.

The Ravens did bring their game back in the second half, though with the play waning on, it was clear the offense became increasingly frustrated. By the end of the second, Carleton had been issued three yellow cards to Toronto’s one, all of which were earned as players lost control in what were otherwise good aggressive maneuvers.

This isn’t to say that the Blues didn’t make their own mistakes. Their offensive strength didn’t count where it had to: on the scoreboard. Sloppiness at points showed a lack of focus and drive. Early in the second, Toronto narrowly avoided what could have become a heartbreaking own-goal as what appeared to be a daydreaming Scott Nesbitt passed to goaltender John Smits, who, caught unawares, was left scrambling to keep the ball on the right side of the goal line. The clearly shaken Smits didn’t appreciate the lack of communication from his teammate, as everyone in the stands heard.

The payback in sports usually comes only after a lot of legwork. On Saturday, the Blues did a lot of legwork, but once they got to the decisive moment, pulled back. With five minutes to go, the game could have been theirs after Gooden was scuffed by a Carleton defender in the penalty area, earning Toronto a penalty kick. But midfielder Vlejko Lukovic’s attempt soared so high over the cross bar, you had to wonder, did the Blues want it after all?

Blues lose, but remain optimistic

The Varsity Blues women’s rugby team hosted the McMaster Marauders at the University of Toronto’s Back Campus last Saturday. The Blues put up a strong defensive front, but were defeated 27-0. The Blues were able to demonstrate their skills in the second half, however, revealing that they boast many talented players on their roster.

The game got off to a decisive start when the Marauders scored their first try in the opening minutes. They quickly followed it up with four more tries and one conversion, bringing the score to 22-0 in only 40 minutes. The Marauders dominated the scrums thanks to strong forwards, and were quick to get the ball out to their wing line, who fed it down in a series of clean passes.

As the game progressed, U of T remained resilient. “We really gave it to them in the second half,” said Blues co-captain and hooker Sonya Kuwiz. The Blues tightened up their defence and began to react faster to the Marauders’ attempts to score. They caught onto Marauders’ eight-man Natasha Turner, and her repeated efforts to pick the ball from the scrum.

The Blues’ backs reorganized so that co-captain Hannah Ehrhardt remained at fly half, followed by centres Silvana Skoko and Charlotte Cooper, and Jana Davis moved to the wing. Gwen Kern continued to play strong as the Blues’ fullback. Although it was only a slight reconfiguration of the field, it proved incredibly advantageous. The backs worked well together to move the ball fluidly when they received it from scrum half Sarah Stainton, and were aggressive in their attempts to take advantage of the play.

The entire team was determined to stave off attempted tries by McMaster. The Marauders scored only one more try in the second half of the game—the result of an unexpected breakaway during the last five minutes of play.

Last season the Marauders played a close semi-final game against the 2008 OUA Champions Guelph Gryphons, losing by only 16 points. More recently, on Sept. 12, they blanked the York Lions 43-0. McMaster is recognized as a strong team and consequently the small margin of victory they had over the Blues is viewed with optimism. Head coach Shannon Smith was in positive spirits post-game and admitted that she was very proud.

The roster this season is composed primarily of new players—only 15 out of the 33 are returning from 2008. Although mostly rookies, the team demonstrates a lot of potential: they may just need a little bit more time to feel each other out. “[The women are working] to start playing as a team and get the cohesion up,” said co-captain Ehrhardt.

The season is short, but Ehrhardt has faith. One thing she hopes the team can accomplish this year is to make the playoffs.

The game against the Marauders proved that the Blues are more than capable of becoming a top-ranked team in the future. They displayed an abundance of talent from both the returning players and the newer members. Veteran Kern produced some near impossible catches as fullback, in addition to the fantastic tackles she made to stunt the Marauders mid-breakaway. Stainton, who was not on last year’s team, was aggressive and quick to react. She entered the game near the end of the first half, and within seconds had intercepted the ball, giving the Blues the advantage.

With the help of fan support, the team will be able to step it up a notch and reach their full potential.

You have three law school requests

Think contacting an admissions officer on Facebook will add a novel twist to your application? You’re not the only one. According to a survey by the test prep company Kaplan, admissions officers at half of surveyed U.S. business schools, 48 per cent of law schools, and 31 per cent of medical schools say they have received friend requests from prospective students on Facebook.

In addition, more schools have started to take advantage of sites like Facebook and the wealth of information that they can provide. This year, 21 per cent of schools say they have begun to develop admissions policies for social networking sites, up from 16 per cent last year.

“College applicants these days are seeking any competitive edge they can,” Jeff Olson, executive director of research at Kaplan, told Reuters. “For now, only a small number of college admissions officers actually visit applicants’ social networking sites, and these visits may not always benefit the applicant.”

Source: Reuters

Hit the road, Jack!

“Canada’s political tides have shifted away from an election,” wrote Luke Savage in the last issue of The Varsity. While it may be true that an election has been postponed, there has been no shifting of political tides, only a selling-out of progressive principles by Jack Layton and the NDP.

The NDP’s decision to prop-up the government was neither about extracting concessions on Employment Insurance—which even the party’s president, Peggy Nash, admitted were “absolutely not enough” – or about co-operation to “make Parliament work.” It was a cold-blooded political calculation made by a party and leader that reeks of the worst kind of opportunism. It is a pathetic distillation of the long-held belief of many Canadians that the NDP no longer stands for progressive policies, only posturing.

Let’s be clear. The New Democrats are in no position to fight an election in today’s political climate. They have no money, while campaigns are increasingly expensive; the Liberals and Conservatives are out-fundraising the NDP by huge margins. Many NDP MPs have been sitting for only a year—making them extremely electorally vulnerable—they have barely nominated 10 per cent of their candidates nationally, and they face an invigorated Liberal Party that is no longer led by Stéphane Dion. Most importantly, New Democrats have no idea what their own party stands for.

Led by their moustachioed firebrand leader, the NDP has smugly proclaimed for months that they would oppose the Harper government, final stop. They would proudly vote against the Harper budget without even reading it. They would proudly oppose the economic update in June. On all matters of confidence, the NDP would vote against the government. But alas, they did not.

This isn’t the first time the New Democrats have joined the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois. In November 2005, Jack Layton proudly brought down the Paul Martin government, bringing on the election that got Stephen Harper his first term as prime minister. Then, as now, Jack put politics over principles.

But now more than ever, the NDP should be standing by their principles to guard against the further crumbling of Canada’s ideals. In his few years as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper has changed this country’s political landscape. Little by little, he’s dismantling our hard-won national institutions. He’s reversing years of progress that Canada has made in international affairs, and he has shown a disdain for national unity, favouring a politics of division and deceit. Enough is enough.

But on Friday, the New Democrats rose ceremoniously in support of the Harper government. They expressed their confidence in the policies of the Harper Conservatives, and ensured the government’s continued survival.

This blatant selling-out of deeply held policy beliefs of the party and its core supporters is not just offensive to political observers. It affects the state of this nation. The result of Layton’s calculations back in 2005 was the cancellation of national childcare, the abandonment of our commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, and the destruction of the Kelowna Accord, a hard-won policy for support and development in Aboriginal communities across the country.

Especially in a parliamentary democracy, it is crucially important to hold our representatives accountable for their actions. The NDP purports to be Canada’s progressive conscience. How can this be so when Jack Layton, Olivia Chow, and the rest of the NDP caucus show that time and again, they are willing to sacrifice their principles to please the pollsters?

Students here at the University of Toronto are right to be cynical about our political system. Having elected Olivia Chow to Parliament to stand up for them as representative for Trinity-Spadina, what they got was a professional politician who betrayed them last Friday by ensuring the continued survival of the Harper government. She, like Jack Layton, put politics before principles. But students are catching on to Layton’s ruse. The NDP is in danger of losing the riding of Trinity-Spadina, which includes most of U of T. And quite frankly, they should lose it. They have failed to stand up for progressives on this campus and across the country. As it turns out, the only thing the NDP stands up for is Stephen Harper’s government.

It’s one thing to talk about putting politics before principles in the abstract way that pundits like to analyse politics. It’s quite another to consider the very real, very destructive consequences of Layton’s calculations. He abandoned progressive Canadians when he stood with Harper in 2005, and he did it again on Friday.

Nova Scotia entices grads to stay home

Nova Scotia is introducing a graduate tax incentive that will offer community college and university graduates up to $15,000 in order to keep skilled young people in-province. Although it is the second-smallest province in Canada, Nova Scotia’s university enrollment per capita is the highest. The Memorandum of Understanding on University Funding and Tuition Fees has also announced its plans on freezing tuition fees for university students for the 2010-2011 academic year. Working closely with post-secondary institutions, the government also plans to make the best use of the Nova Scotia Crown Share University Infrastructure Trust Fund.

Source: Throne Speech from Sept. 17, 2009

More money, more problems

This weekend, President Obama did something deeply self-interested, though it may not appear that way. When speaking to reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade, the president raised an issue that few media analysts expected, suggesting he would support a financial bailout package for print newspapers.

On the surface, Obama appears to be speaking imprudently. Given the recent news of imminent collapse at the New York and LA Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, and almost any institution that puts ink to newsprint, a bailout would have to be another substantial contribution to the already enormous American deficit. And one can imagine fiscal conservatives already weary of paying for public infrastructure projects and health care loathing to give any money to the “liberal media elites.”

However, Obama’s comments on the topic reveal his own political self-interest in the matter: “I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context,” worried the president, “what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding.” In other words, he was shielding himself.

More than any leader in history, Obama has faced the consequences of the digital echo chamber. Blogs have been ground zero for disinformation about the black, progressive president. In a lot of ways, the rebound of institutional journalism would be a great boon to the Obama presidency.

More to the point, is a newspaper bailout really the best way forward for reviving the health of journalism? If Obama’s predictions—that Internet reporting is fundamentally flawed, and that blogs will never achieve the rigour of established media institutions—hold true, then perhaps. But more importantly, a single bailout would not address the structural issues facing newspapers today. Given the changes in technology, it’s unlikely newspapers will revert to the old modes of readership again, meaning one bailout couldn’t turn the tide. Unless the government wants to be in a position of funding print journalism indefinitely, it has to address the greater structural issues at play.

As with any problem of national importance, there’s no shortage of bad ideas on how to solve it. The forthcoming lawsuit against Google News being mulled by the Associated Press—aiming to prove that Google has been using their content illegally—would be a thoroughly counterproductive measure that only stands to make the traditional media even more irrelevant. So too would be the idea of developing an anti-trust exemption that would let news organizations get together to fix the prices of articles online, which would result in the end of free web content. Putting the digital locks back on will only drive more readers to the hyper-partisan sites already offering their wares for free.

Given the revolutionary change in how citizens consume news, only a genuinely revolutionary business model will suffice. For example, little has been said about Senator Benjamin Cardin’s suggestion of allowing large print dailies to operate under a non-profit model. This would remove the profit imperative that have driven recent cuts and would not require newspapers to embrace a technologically digressive attitude. While critics of this plan dismiss the possibility of a newspaper funded by the public as being beholden its donors, this is likely a preferable option to being beholden to corporate advertising and shareholders as the news media is today. Whether or not this solution could be workable is up for debate, but given the circumstances, we have to try something.

Oh, the humanities

Thinkers and scholars got their 15 minutes in front of a packed audience at Trinity’s George Ignatieff Theatre on Monday evening. The crowd came out for a panel on “Humanities for Inhumane Times,” discussing key issues facing the study of humanities and what contribution the humanities can make. The speakers were John Ralston Saul, Canadian essayist and novelist; Avi Lewis, host of Faultlines on Al Jazeera English; Chad Gaffield, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; and Jill Matus, U of T English professor and vice-provost student life. Each spoke for 15 minutes before holding a roundtable discussion, moderated by philosophy prof Robert Gibbs.

“The roots of humanism have to be re-examined profoundly,” said Saul, tracing North American humanities’ roots primarily to Europe, a civilization, he noted, that managed to kill 150 million of its own people in less than 50 years. He added that Canada isn’t making an effort to save its over 50 Aboriginal languages from extinction. The languages, in offering new ways to think about people and place, contain essentially humanist philosophies that are not taught inside mainstream Canadian philosophical systems. Saul reiterated, both in his speech and during discussion, that the purpose of the university was first and foremost to create citizens.

Matus highlighted the lack of understanding in how the humanities are perceived. Sometimes they are mistakenly equated with the performing arts, she said, or viewed as antiquarian, indulgent, and “obviously not useful in an economy driven by accountability.” She argued that the major roles of the humanities—criticism, analysis, and evaluation—are largely overlooked.

“All the interesting questions on the minds of people today are at the heart of what we do,” said Gaffield, a historian by training. The real value of research, whether in humanities or science, lies in what interests the populace, he said. Gaffield added that the case for the humanities needs to be made more compellingly to the world.

Lewis, a documentary filmmaker, stressed the need to examine the socio-political context of the discussion on humanities. “There has been a fundamental victory for the vision of education as a necessary investment in one’s economic future, rather than as the process of building critical subjects that make a democracy work,” he said.

“An engaged academia is at the heart of every democratic movement in society,” said Lewis, portraying the economic crisis as a new opportunity for the humanities to redirect the conversation to “the impact of policies on people, rather than look to the smart guys with their infallible models who proved [to be] so colossally wrong.”

Lewis echoed Saul’s support for free undergraduate education in Canada, a topic that made for the main highlight of the discussion session. “The question of paying for education is […] a huge responsibility of the only people in society who have been guaranteed jobs for life…you guys with tenure!” he said, pointing to faculty members in front-row reserved seats.

“There are almost no consequences. You can advocate revolution, for chrissake!” he added, as the theatre filled with applause and laughter.