People with motor disabilities have difficulty controlling their body movements, making it virtually impossible to speak or move voluntarily. A University of Toronto professor has developed a new technology using infrared cameras that allows people with such impairments to communicate.Dung Le is a patient at Bloorview Kids Rehab with cerebral palsy who is unable to speak. His mother is able to translate his sounds, but he cannot communicate with anyone else. Professor Tom Chau, director of the clinical engineering program at U of T, has developed a technology that converts a camera screen image of Le’s face into a communication board that allows him to spell out letters.“His only reliable movement was opening and closing his mouth. This is a hard movement to acknowledge,” Chau said. “We suspected we could detect the thermal radiation that is emitted when he opens his mouth with a camera.”With the help of U of T PhD student Negar Memarian, Chau devised a system to help Dung communicate.“When he opens his mouth there is a temperature difference between the inside of his mouth and the other areas of his face. You can see an image of the person’s face where the bright spots appear around his mouth. With the camera, we found his face, localized his mouth, and detected when the mouth region became warm—the brightest spot.”This detection triggers a switch on a computer which starts to scan the alphabet. When Dung sees the letter that he wants, he opens and closes his mouth to select it. The first word that Dung typed out using this new technology was M-U-T-H-E-R, an acknowledgement to his mother, who had previously translated all his sounds.This technology is a customized solution for a person with involuntary movements.“A few other people have tried it, but it needs some tweaking for each individual, since each person’s temperature profile is different,” explained Chau.The technology is extremely helpful to Dung, who is a business student, and no longer needs to rely on his mother for communication.Memarian is completing her degree in biomedical engineering and played a large role in developing the technology. “This guy [Le] had a severe motor disability and so much intelligence,” she said.Chau, who also holds the Canada Research Chair in paediatric rehab engineering, runs his lab out of Bloorview Kids Rehab. “In terms of impact,” he explained, “the greater the variety of solutions, the better. Each person’s ability is so unique that the larger the library of solutions, the more we have to offer.”
The Empire Strikes Again?
NLCS: Philadelphia Phillies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The strength of the Philadelphia Phillies is their offense. Tremendous left-handed hitters such as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez fill their line-up, but righty Jayson Werth and switch-hitters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino also provide pop.The Phillies’ main concern will be their pitching. Cliff Lee looked great in his first two postseason starts during the National League Division Series, pitching 16 and 1⁄3 innings, with a miniscule 1.10 ERA, but Cole Hamels had a very disappointing season. Hamels did not look good against the Rockies in Game Two of the National League Division Series, giving up four earned runs in only five innings. Perhaps he is hiding an injury or a mechanical flaw, but he needs to show he is capable of being the same dominating pitcher from last October if the Phillies want to advance to the World Series.The bullpen is in a state of disarray. Brad Lidge was horrendous during the season, posting a 7.21 ERA, and a whopping 11 blown saves. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel showed confidence in Lidge, as the manager called upon his embattled reliever to close out Games Three and Four of the NLDS. It remains to be seen whether Lidge stays reliable through the rest of the postseason.The Dodgers have a solid lineup, highlighted by Rafael Furcal, Andre Ethier, Manny Ramirez, and future megastar Matt Kemp. Speedy Juan Pierre and veteran hitter Jim Thome can both come off the bench to make an impact.The Dodgers feature unspectacular pitching, though Randy Wolf and Hiroki Kuroda are reliable enough. Rangers cast-off Vicente Padilla was unbeaten as a Dodger with four regular season wins, and threw seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in the NLDS. Chad Billingsley, an all-star in the regular season, was relegated to the bullpen and has not made an appearance.Clayton Kershaw must have a solid NLCS if the Dodgers are going to beat the Phillies. Kershaw can be flat-out dominant, though he still battles control issues. In Game One of the NLCS, Kershaw was not at his best, allowing five earned runs in four and 2⁄3 innings.The Dodgers have two dominant relievers at the back of the bullpen: closer Jonathan Broxton and set-up man George Sherrill, who was acquired from Baltimore at the trade deadline. When the Dodgers hand over the lead to the bullpen in the late innings, they should feel safe.Dodgers’ manager Joe Torre may get the chance to face his former team, the New York Yankees, in the World Series, but must first get past the former champions in a grind of a series.Prediction: Dodgers in sevenNLCS MVP: Matt Kemp—SILVIO SANSANOThe Dodgers and the Phillies battle for the National League pennant for the second straight year. The series will be a bit different this time, as the Dodgers enjoy home field advantage whereas the Phillies did last year. That advantage is crucial, especially in the playoffs. It will give the Dodgers a better chance of taking an early lead in the series, in contrast to the two games to none disadvantage that they found themselves in after opening the NLCS in Philadelphia last year.Pitching is usually the deciding factor in the playoffs, and in that department, the Dodgers hold a clear advantage. Their pitching is first in the Majors, thanks to a sterling 3.41 staff ERA over the regular season. The Phillies are not far behind, though, as their 4.16 ERA gives them the eighth best pitching in the big leagues. The Dodgers have allowed almost a hundred fewer runs than the Phillies, and they have surrendered 62 fewer home runs. The Phillies’ only pronounced pitching advantage is in the control department, as they issued 105 fewer walks than Los Angeles in the regular season.From an offensive standpoint, the teams are a bit more evenly matched. While the Dodgers’ .270 team batting average trumps the Phillies’ .258, the men in grey hit an astounding 79 more home runs. Still trying to decide which team holds the advantage? Consider that Philadelphia’s slugging percentage was 35 points higher than L.A.’s, even though the Dodgers drew more walks. Philadelphia always seems to find a way to get it done, as their offense is always unrelenting when it matters the most.Prediction: Phillies in SixNLCS MVP: Cliff Lee—KEVIN DRAPER
ALCS: Los Angeles Angels vs. New York Yankees
The Yankees lineup is a powerhouse. They led the Majors in runs, on base percentage, and home runs. The only way to defeat the Yankees is with pitching and defence, though the Angels have both. The Angels rotation led by John Lackey, Jered Weaver, and Joe Saunders, is solid and deeper than the Yankees rotation.The Yankees will go with a three-man rotation, meaning CC Sabathia could get three starts in the best-of-seven matchup. Sabathia has been a great free-agent acquisition for the Yankees, as the big left-hander went 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA and posted a 1.15 WHIP in 230 innings this season.The main concern of the Yankees should be slowing down the Angels running game. Angels third baseman Chone Figgins had 42 stolen bases on the season, and Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter had 30 and 18 stolen bases respectively. The Angels like to run and create havoc on the base paths, which will frustrate Yankees pitchers.However, The Yankees have a stronger bullpen than the Angels. Mariano Rivera is the best closer in baseball. The veteran right-hander posted a 1.76 ERA during the season, registering 44 saves in 46 opportunities. The Yankees have a bridge to Rivera in Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, both of whom were groomed as starters at the start of the season. As a reliever, Hughes posted a spectacular 1.40 ERA, with 65 strikeouts in 51 1⁄3 innings and allowing only 31 hits.The Angels did not have the same overpowering bullpen as in years past. Despite recording 48 saves in 2009, Angels closer Brian Fuentes had seven blown saves and posted a 1.40 WHIP. If the Angels have the lead, things could get interesting in the late innings. The Yankees have 50 come-from-behind wins, the most in baseball.With a powerful offense, the Yankees will defeat the Angels, and advance to the World Series for the first time since 2003.Prediction: Yankees in sixALCS MVP: CC Sabathia—SILVIO SANSANOThe Yankees have returned to the League Championship Series for the first time since their historic collapse against the Boston Red Sox in 2004. They revamped their team this past off-season, adding megastars CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. While many doubted that simply throwing together so many talented players could yield effective results right away, 2009 played out as the best-case scenario for the Yankees. They smashed their way to 103 wins, and achieved a seemingly effortless American League East division title. The Angels, by contrast, were haunted by the tragic death of rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart in early April. They banded together to produce, to which the team is accustomed. The Angels are consistently one of the most technically sound teams in the majors, leading the league in effective outs under the tutelage of the brilliant and strategically sound Mike Scioscia.Despite the Angels owning a slightly better team batting average (.285 to .283), the Yankees seem to have an edge from an offensive standpoint. They outslugged the Angels by over 30 runs, hit 71 more home runs, drew more than a hundred more walks, and had a greater on base percentage. The Angels’ only real offensive advantage is their speed, as they swiped 148 bases to the Yankees’ 111.The pitching matches up more evenly. The Yankees’ ERA is a mere 0.19 higher than that of the Angels, and they are comparable in most other categories. The Yankees’ real advantage is their impressive depth, as the front end of their starting rotation features Sabathia, Burnett and the dangerous-in-the-postseason Andy Pettitte. Once the game is handed over to the bullpen, they can plug in Phil Hughes and the invincible-in-October Mariano Rivera, and have their opponents at their mercy. Manager Joe Girardi also enjoys the luxury of deciding whether he wants to use young star Joba Chamberlain out of the bullpen, or as a starter.George Steinbrenner has spent a lot of money in search of October glory since the Yankees’ last World Series title in 2000, and he’s received very little return on his investment. This time around, though, it would take a significant upset for the Yankees to be denied the prize.Prediction: Yankees in SixALCS MVP: Derek Jeter—KEVIN DRAPER
For the last month I’ve dreaded having to review the Trinity College Drama Society’s production of Saints Alive. I hadn’t heard of the play before, and then when I Googled it, I came across a synopsis that stated the show was literally about two saints. I had a picture in my head that I’d be sitting through a two-hour religious revival, and days before the show, I begged numerous friends to come and see it with me in case I had no clue what was going on. But I found myself sitting in the George Ignatieff Theatre on Oct. 15, and lo and behold, I not only understood what was happening, I enjoyed it.Saints Alive is a charming musical that looks into the traditions and tales of Trinity’s St. Gilda’s and Quinquagesima institutions. Set in the 1940s, St. Gilda’s girls are forced to earn not only their degrees in the Arts but hopefully also an Mrs. degree—that is, to make a fortunate marriage. But will any boy do? Of course not! Only the most irresistible, dashing, and refined chap, like Daphnis (played by charming British native, Will Jennings) will sweep these girls off their feet.Trouble and comedy arrive when Daphnis himself becomes enamoured of new girl Chloe (Clara Rozee), a gun-toting, beer-drinking, vulgar-speaking tomboy from the north, who is only trying to emulate her mother, whom she never knew. Along with college romance, secrets are unlocked and schools are saved, allowing Saints Alive to end happily despite a confusing hour of in-between drama.The cast showed promise, but the quick resolution of the locket storyline appeared rushed. While it fit the cliché that musicals will end happily despite an oppressive reality, Saints Alive’s conclusion came almost too suddenly and easily. By the time Chloe’s estranged father makes his appearance, along with the return of a dancing statue of Bishop Strachan, you can’t help but roll your eyes at the ridiculousness of the situation.Many of the songs that the cast bellowed out in the small theatre were hilarious, such as a ballad with the lyric “If an oyster has a love life, then why shouldn’t I?” I immensely enjoyed the song “Between the Lamppost” when Daphnis and Chloe romantically unite for the first time. Both the male and female choruses performed well, in particular Christie Bates, who portrayed the stuffy Hester with a fantastic soprano voice. Mark Harris’s high falsetto notes were also worth hearing as he disguised himself as a girl in order to reconnect with the opposite sex. For the most part, the piano-played tunes were fun and catchy, but the preview to Act II was irritating to sit through. Though clearly buying time to allow for necessary costume and set changes, it was tiring hearing a synopsis of what we just saw.The choreography stayed a bit too safe as most performers resorted to simple folk-dancing steps. Although the character of Louella added a sense of sass and a daring edge, the dancing simply wasn’t very impressive. Overall, stage presence was lacking, proven by the audience’s mixed responses at the end of each song. The interaction between the actors and the audience, though, provided a fun surprise. I was shocked and amused when halfway through her explanation of St. Gilda’s past, the character of Louella jumped onto my lap before jumping back up and storming the audience aisles.The set, while simple, portrayed the grounds of University of Toronto very realistically. The backdrop painting of the George Ignatieff Theatre illustrated immense talent and created a crisp autumn atmosphere. However, the set crew appeared unprepared during the show, as they allowed curtains to drop sloppily and took far too long to plug in a lamp.Trinity College students may have had an easier time understanding some of the jokes, such as the repeated, dramatic cries of “the MORTGAGE!” which resulted in laughter almost every time. As a University College student, I cannot say that the musical truly touched upon general University of Toronto humour, but I still caught myself laughing at remarks made about the TTC and other city elements.As a whole, Saints Alive had a talented cast when it came to singing, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a must-see experience. Alumni from the ’40s may understand more of the story’s humour, but for my generation, this isn’t the best satire.
Spite the power
A group of 30 or so members of the community gathered at the U of T Art Centre on a chilly October evening to attend “Cultures of Power and the Power of Culture: An Artist Talk with Reena Katz.” The location alone was enough to have spurred discussion. The event was held in conjunction with UTAC’s Rochdale College exhibit, and the attendants were seated among relics and remnants of the famed alternative to higher education. A huge tapestry of the Mona Lisa dominated the room with glowing cut-out eyes. Several bulletin boards were covered in documents from Rochdale and testimonials from former residents.But that was the extent of Rochdale’s inclusion in the talk. The discussion focused more on the idea of cultural resistance. Within the framework of Edward Saïd’s Orientalism, and her own experience with her art show each hand as they are called and the controversy that surrounded it, Katz explored the meaning of power, struggle, and how cultural productions contribute to the artist’s conception of each.Edward Saïd was perhaps one of the most respected and influential Palestinian intellectuals of the last 30 years, and published the book Orientalism in 1978. Simply put, “Orientalism” is the idea that the West has a static, distorted, and grossly generalized view of the Middle East, people who come from the Middle East, and Islam. This view is perpetuated by the news media, pop culture, and the arts, and is part of a greater political agenda. If you’re studying any of the humanities, you’re probably already familiar with the concept (perhaps, to your taste, ad nauseum). Of note, however, is how Orientalism opened up discourse about the nature of the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict.Toronto artist Reena Katz has been active in her Palestinian solidarity work as a vocal critic of the Israeli government’s policies and a supporter of Israeli Apartheid Week. She is also Jewish, devoted to her heritage and culture, and was originally commissioned by the Koffler Centre for the Arts to produce a multi-faceted art show. Then came the controversy: although the project which Katz and her curator, Kim Simon, had been working on for over a year was focused entirely on the Jewish tradition, culture, and history and had nothing to do with Palestine, the Koffler Centre chose to disassociate with Katz and the show, stating that Katz’ political views were contradictory to their values.To some, Katz’s experience with the Koffler Centre constitutes censorship, and the incident garnered much attention from the media as it unfolded. In her talk, Katz extrapolated on her experience to the greater issue of art censorship and how it relates to attempts to stamp out a people. She spoke of power as a commodity—who has it, asks for it, gives it, or gives it up—as it becomes the centre of interaction between peoples. Those in power, she contended, maintained that power by silencing dissident voices and viewpoints, and in doing so erase their culture.For Katz, culture is what defines a people. Language, literature, oral history, and architecture all serve to sustain a people’s identity, and it is through that art that the struggle for survival takes place. Katz invited the audience to share examples of and insight into cultural resistance and struggle in the face of extermination: book burning, destruction of architecture, and the restriction of passing on knowledge were all cited as tell-tale signs on suppression throughout history, including the Holocaust, the India-Pakistan conflict, and the current Israel-Palestine conflict. To illustrate, Katz showed a video of the opening day of the Palestine Festival of Literature 2009 held in Jerusalem. The video shows Israeli forces shutting down the festival minutes before it began, forcing the organizers to relocate to the French Consulate. Katz summed up her experience, the examples from the audience, and the incident at PalFest 09 as stemming from fear, indicating a lack of readiness on the part of her community to engage in open discourse.Katz presented a very broad, complex topic in a simple and concise way. What was missing, it seemed, was tangibility. The discussion felt disconnected from not only the Rochdale theme but also from any application. There was a lack of action behind the words, to the point that it was difficult to pinpoint their relevance. Despite the incredible weight and importance of art and other cultural works in creating and preserving traditions, Katz’s talk was focused through such a narrow lens that it failed to compel people to action or to incite any emotional response. Its strength came from the simple fact that it occurred. It provided a forum for discussion and illumination of the importance of art in a community and that alone made it a success.Reena Katz’s “Cultures of Power and the Power of Culture” lecture was presented as part of the U of T Art Centre’s Rochdale College exhibition, which runs until Oct. 31. For more information, visit studentsutac.ning.com.
Discovering a therapeutic agent is only the first step in developing a new drug. Even if the drug has immensely beneficial properties, it is virtually useless if it cannot enter the bloodstream.Drug absorption and delivery is an obstacle to therapy that few researchers have been able to effectively tackle. That’s where Dr. Ping Lee, professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at U of T, comes in. Lee has dedicated his research to enhancing and modulating drug delivery. “We are concentrating on overcoming the problem of low solubility. If something doesn’t dissolve in the body, it won’t be absorbed—it’s that simple,” he says.Soluble drugs dissolve readily in aqueous media, such as the gastrointestinal tract, where they can ultimately pass into the bloodstream. Alternatively, poorly soluble drugs remain in the lumen of the gastrointestinal tract, are not absorbed by the bloodstream, and are thus unavailable to the body. Therein lies the problem. Many otherwise beneficial drugs fall into the “poorly soluble” category of pharmaceutical agents.But sometimes drug manufacturers will want to delay a drug from coming into full effect, even after it has been administered to the body. In such cases, researchers will set up additional, artificial barriers that the pharmaceutical agent will have to surpass before entering the bloodstream.Lee has engineered a unique system of drug release modulation that embeds drugs in a polymer matrix that gradually releases drugs into the bloodstream. The implications of such a controlled-release system are monumental, as it may obviate multiple dosing medication regimens, replacing them with once-daily—or perhaps even less frequent—dosing.The plate-like characteristics of Lee’s drug delivery system are crucial to its function. The polymers are like plate or glass when dry, but once in an aqueous medium (such as the gastrointestinal lumen) the system is hydrated, swells up, and forms a gel-like body. Hydration of the system leads to slow and controlled release of the drug.The drug remains immobile until it is completely released into the bloodstream, when it then exerts its full effect. Lee explains, “Hydrophilic glassy polymers increase solubility by stabilizing the drug in its amorphous [disordered] form. The polymer prevents the drug from crystallizing, and its solubility is increased because it does not have to overcome the crystal lattice. This facilitates absorption in the intestine.”Due to issues arising from the solubility of a drug, patients sometimes need to take multiple and frequent doses in order to experience the medication’s full therapeutic effect. Patient compliance with medication regimens is itself often a barrier to achieving maximal therapeutic benefit, and for good reason: it can be pretty inconvenient for patients to adhere to regimens which entail frequent dosing, as opposed to one pill a day, which is less likely to be overlooked.The development coming out of Lee’s work holds larger scale promise for remedying absorption issues that have troubled medicinal chemists and halted the advancement of pharmaceutically active drugs for years. In addition to improving patient-drug adherence and the implied cost-savings for patients, this technology can be extrapolated to enhance the delivery of many pharmaceutical agents that otherwise do not enter the bloodstream easily.
Researchers predict the correlation between climate change and ozone distribution
University of Toronto researchers have identified the role of climate change on ozone distribution and atmospheric circulation over the earth’s surface.According to Michaela Hegglin, a postdoctoral fellow and lead researcher on the project, and professor Theodore Shepherd from the department of physics at U of T, UV radiation will decrease in the northern high latitudes by about nine per cent by the year 2100 and increase over the tropics and southern high latitudes by roughly four per cent. The southern high latitudes—mainly Antarctica—will experience the greatest jump, however, at an estimated 20 per cent, which will be most apparent in the spring and summer.The Toronto team made their predictions using the computer-generated Canadian Middle Atmospheric Model. They published their findings in the journal Nature Geoscience last month.Ozone distribution from the tropics to the high latitudes results from the breaking of massive atmospheric “waves” that stir the air as they move from the troposphere (the lowest atmospheric layer) into the stratosphere (the second major atmospheric layer). The exact mechanism by which these waves break remains unknown, although Hegglin’s colleagues are currently investigating it.The change in ozone distribution tracked by Hegglin and her team began in the 1960s and will continue until the year 2095.UV radiation acts on the skin to promote vitamin D synthesis. People living in northern high latitudes, like northern Canada, already experience above average rates of vitamin D deficiency diseases, such as rickets, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, and seasonal affective disorder.A change in UV radiation will also harm phytoplankton, the foundation of the world’s marine food chains, which depend on the sun’s UV rays for survival. A decrease in UV radiation could reduce phytoplankton populations in northern lakes and oceans, consequently affecting organisms that depend on them for food. Reduced phytoplankton numbers might further exacerbate the effects of climate change, as the microscopic plants take up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide during photosynthesis.At the other end of Hegglin’s ozone predictions, an increase in radiation over the tropics and southern high latitudes could have drastic effects on human health and ecosystems. Too much UV radiation exposure can increase the rate of eye cataracts and skin cancer in humans. There is some evidence suggesting that these ailments also affect animals.Hegglin noted that the increase in UV radiation most likely will not affect melting ice sheets, as it holds less energy than other forms of radiation in the sunlight spectrum.Hegglin initially didn’t set out to study the effect of climate change and UV on the earth’s surface, although she was intrigued by other similar studies and decided to quantify these reported changes. She then used mathematical equations relating total stratospheric ozone with UV radiation on the earth’s surface. “I was astonished how large the impact was,” she said.The changes that Hegglin and her team have predicted are imminent and irreversible. “Even if we stopped all [carbon dioxide] emissions tomorrow, [the predicted changes] would still happen. This is because of the very long lifetime of the greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere,” said Shepherd. According to Shepherd, the study highlights how climate change can have unexpected consequences, which should be investigated further.This research was conducted under a program funded by the Canadian Space Agency and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.Shepherd explains that the CFCAS’s mandate is due to expire in approximately one year. Unfortunately, the government does not see a reason to renew it. Shepherd claims that as a result of the program’s closure, “Climate change research currently going on at U of T and elsewhere across the country will come to a crashing halt.”
Understanding telomerase: DNA’s protective shield
The 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology awarded jointly to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack W. Szostak “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”
What do genome stability, aging, and cancer have in common? All of these processes can be traced back to telomere function.All cells that have a nucleus—including yours, but also those of all plants and animals, and some single-celled organisms—package genetic DNA in the same format: linear chromosomes. The ends, or telomeres, of those chromosomes have long intrigued biologists as the potential key to remedying disease associated with genetic instability and chromosome degradation.In the 1930s, Hermann J. Muller and Barbara McClintock (Nobel Laureate, 1983) proved that telomeres are important for chromosome integrity. McClintock showed that without telomeres, chromosomes tend to stick together and sometimes undergo rearrangements that are harmful to the cell.In 1972, James Watson (Nobel Laureate, 1962) showed that the cellular enzymes that replicate DNA in the cell cannot faithfully replicate telomeres, due to a quirk of DNA replication.Cells duplicate genomes using a parental genome as a template. As the cell begins to duplicate, the two strands of DNA’s famous double-helix structure pull apart. Each daughter cell ends up with a double-stranded DNA genome: one strand from the original parent strand and a newly synthesized complementary strand. Because DNA replication starts at the centre of the strand, a lagging strand is produced whereby one arm of each of the parent strands doesn’t copy all the way to the end, resulting in telomere shortening. So how does the cell keep from shortening every chromosome every time it replicates itself?Elizabeth Blackburn discovered the clue to solving this conundrum. Between 1975 and 1977, Blackburn found that the single-celled organism Tetrahymena has telomeres that consist of a number of DNA sequence repeats. Blackburn presented these results at a conference where it caught the interest of Jack Szostak. At the time Szostak was working on linear DNA called mini-chromosomes. He found that these mini-chromosomes rapidly degraded during his experiments when introduced into yeast cells. He couldn’t understand what made the mini-chromosomes different from the linear yeast chromosomes, which don’t decay in the same way. Together, Blackburn and Szostak hypothesized that the two experimental results were connected.Blackburn provided Szostak with the DNA sequence repeats from Tetrahymena telomeres and Szostak added them to the ends of his mini-chromosomes, which lacked telomere ends. The mini-chromosomes were protected from degradation even though the protective DNA sequence came from a very different organism. We now know that most organisms with a nucleus carry telomeric repeats of almost the same DNA sequence.In the 1980s, Blackburn and Szostak showed that the number of telomeric sequences at the end of each chromosome differs not only between organisms, but also between the chromosomes of different cells within the same organism. Blackburn and her then graduate student Carol Greider decided to see if they could find an enzyme that could account for these differences in length. They discovered telomerase (telomere polymerase) on Christmas day, 1984.Telomerase is an enzyme made of both protein and RNA (ribonucleic acid). The RNA component of the enzyme carries the DNA repeat sequence which acts as a template for the lengthening of the telomeric repeat sequence. Telomerase activity allows the DNA polymerase to replicate the parental strand DNA to the end of the chromosome during cell replication. But this process is not always perfect.Yeast cells with mutations that prevent them from maintaining telomere length grow poorly and eventually stop dividing altogether. Similar observations were made in Tetrahymena. Both of these organisms are single-celled, and under normal conditions can replicate uninterrupted forever. Telomerase function is central to their immortality. What remains to be understood is how important telomerase function is in other organisms that have finite lifespans, like humans.Greider went to on to found her own research lab and, along with others, discovered that many human cells lack telomerase. In the 1970s, Alexey M. Olovnikov hypothesized that chromosome shortening could explain how some cells age and die. The observation that cells of the human body that eventually die lack telomerase activity appears to support Olovnikov’s hypothesis. Mortal cells are known to divide a finite number of times. Interestingly, their telomeres shorten as they age. Conversely, cancer cells (which are essentially cells that reproduce too well and too quickly) have been observed to display increased telomerase activity.
When telomerase was initially linked to cell immortality, telomerase function became a target for cancer research and research to reverse or slow the aging process. This has led to linking some human diseases to altered telomerase function, including some skin and lung diseases, and congenital aplastic anemia, a type of anemia where the bone marrow does not produce enough cells to replace blood cells.Overall, the evidence so far favours a model in which telomerase function is a contributor to cancer cell growth, but not one of the initial changes that turns a cell carcinogenic. The connections between telomerase and cancer, aging, and disease are only more complicated than initially hypothesized and have opened up new avenues for research in these fields.This year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology is also significant as it is the first time that two women have shared a Nobel, and the first time an Australian woman has won.
The financial turmoil that swept the world last year hit the University of Toronto especially hard. Quietly, at a September 29 meeting of the Governing Council’s Business Board, the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation—tasked with investing the sizable endowment that the university has been accumulating over the past few decades—presented their latest report. The news that William Moriarty, president and CEO of UTAM, brought to Simcoe Hall was almost comical in its grandeur.In the 2008 fiscal year, the University of Toronto’s investments lost a total of $528.1 million. These losses amount to a 31 per cent loss in the total value of the university’s endowment, and mean that what had already been a bleak financial outlook is even worse than once thought.During the course of the presentation, Moriarty mentioned that in light of last year’s events, a fresh look at the university’s investment policy needs to take place. Forgiving Moriarty for this obvious understatement, he’s right in saying that the university’s investment policy needs to be thoroughly reviewed. Currently, it allows for hedge fund investments, which are extremely risky in the best of times. Twice now in the last decade—between 2001 and 2003, and now in the last year—the university has lost considerable sums in investments. These losses lead to cutbacks in the faculties which rely on endowed teaching positions, and to the endowed bursaries and grants which so many students depend on to allow them to go to school. Because of the losses last year, there will be no payout of endowment funds to any academic unit this year. The taps are off, and the well is dry.In many respects, the endowment is relatively young. Unlike the major private universities of the United States, our university has not focused on seeking alumni and business donations until recently. During the 1990s, U of T decided that it would surge ahead of other Canadian public universities and begin to seek a larger endowment with the hopes of using this money in the same way private American universities do: as a capital fund that could yield a large profit through investment. Unfortunately, there can be no window for profit in investing without a similar window for risk, and this scheme possessed much more risk than the endowment had been exposed to in the past. The story of why the university has lost so much money is mirrored in how the market crash came about in the first place: too many people made too many risky investments, all in the belief that a little more profit could be made before the reality of the situation could set in.There is another question lost in the overwhelming reality of the university’s losses on the market: should U of T be risking these endowments in the first place? Alumni and other donors give money to the university because they trust that those donations will go towards making the university a better place. Whether it is a few hundred dollars or an endowed bursary, donations have been made to the university on the basis that money given to the university will be used by the university. In the face of such a huge loss, how can U of T approach donors in good faith in an attempt to rebuild the endowment? As long as the university seeks large profits through exposing the endowment to market risks, there will be no guarantee that money given will actually be used to better education. Moriarty is right to suggest that the system needs an overhaul, if not for the future of current investments still exposed, then for the satisfaction of those alumni weary of handing their money over to be squandered in the name of profit. A good place to start would be asking whether this institution’s resources should be used to promote learning or profit. One of those goals has been working nicely since 1827; to the other, history has not been so kind.