Finger regeneration draws concern

Evolutionary adaptations have led to fascinating traits in certain groups of organisms, many that we wish to make applicable to humans. In the animal kingdom, some members of the phylum Echinoderms, like sea stars, are able to regenerate body parts that have been separated either voluntarily or by a predator. A sea star can grow a lost arm readily after detaching it from its body to either escape a predator or rid itself of a damaged limb. A similar trait has also evolved in certain snakes and lizards, now capable of readily regenerating their tails after losing them, a trait called “caudal autotomy.”

These phenomena fascinate scientists who wonder whether we can apply the basic principles of “regeneration” to humans. For people who have lost limbs, parts of their fingers or organs, or whose skin is severely damaged, regenerative medicine could completely change their lives. And some have already found a way to regenerate severed human body parts.

Take Lee Spievack, a Cincinnati hobby-store salesman, for example. Spievack says that he successfully grew back a portion of his middle finger that was sliced off by a model airplane propeller in an accident in August 2005.

“I pointed to [the model airplane],” Spievack recently recalled, “and said, ‘You need to get rid of this engine, it’s too dangerous.’ And I put my finger through the prop.”

The removed portion of his finger could not be found, so the emergency room doctor bandaged his hand and suggested a skin graft. Fortunately, Spievack’s brother is the founder of regenerative medicine company entitled ACell Inc. and a former Harvard surgeon. Dr. Alan Spievack gave his brother a powder created from pig bladder extracts used to help horses regrow ligaments. The powder, comprised of collagen and a few other substances, contains no pig cells, according to ACell scientific advisor Dr. Stephen Badylak, also a regeneration expert at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Spievack had already employed this powder on another man who had cut his fingertip off in an accident one year prior to Lee Spievack’s model plane incident. That man’s fingertip was successfully regenerated over four to six weeks, according to the doctor.

Naturally, scientists remain skeptical of this magical substance. While they do not deny that the tip of Lee Spievack’s finger has regrown, they believe it occurred naturally. “It appears to regenerate because new skin grows over the end of the finger—that’s a normal recovery,” Simon Kay, professor of hand surgery at the University of Leeds, told the BBC. “It can be utterly surprising how well it repairs after what appears to be a ghastly injury but it’s what you might expect from the most peripheral part of the body.”

Admittedly, it is difficult to understand what the powder does to signal the initiation of regeneration. But the very fact that we know little about the basic principles of regeneration, an established trait that has evolved multiple times in many groups of organisms, may represent our incomplete knowledge of the scientific practice. Studying this powder, whether it has contributed to the cause of the regeneration or not, may offer researchers a new perspective on regeneration. That, combined with studying existing traits in animals capable of this evolved talent, could lead to greater research advancements.

Emotion: enemy of science or friend of reason?

Does emotion belong in science? This simple question is one that many scientists would answer with a simple “no.” Emotion clouds rational thought, and should be avoided in favor of untainted observation of facts. When observing natural phenomenon of any type, the observer’s bias could colour the outcome, portraying an unrealistic picture of what was observed. In a quest for objective truth, emotion appears to be the enemy.

Many types of science are deeply tangled with emotion due to their subject matter. Dr. Harvey Armstrong, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at U of T, studies childhood sexual abuse. He sees no problem with incorporating emotion into his scientific research. “Human beings… are run by the limbic system,” he says, relaying insight into the difficulty of separating our feelings from any human endeavor (the limbic system is the neural network that supports emotion and behaviour).

Dr. Armstrong also believes that there is a total lack of emotion in the “hard” sciences. “All of the engineers I’ve run into are emotionally blind and deaf,” he noted fervently. While some level of disinterest is necessary for basic research, it is important to remember whom your findings will ultimately affect. “Who cares [about the age of the Earth]? If you’re likely to be shot on your street because people have not done appropriate things with kids and families, that’s rather more important,” Dr. Armstrong added.

The perceived separation of emotion and science in the physical sciences may not even truly exist. As soon as you step out of a laboratory (and usually before that), human emotion begins to infect lives. Many of the so-called “hard” sciences are afflicted with personal involvement as soon as they are applied to the real world. Nuclear physics as an academic discipline may not be an expressive activity, but as soon as its concepts are applied to nuclear energy or weapons, passions rise in a hurry. Dr. Ray Carlberg, Professor of Astronomy at U of T, commented “I don’t accept that the physical sciences…are not emotional.” Carlberg noted that all scientists are passionate about their work; otherwise, why spend long hours on tedious experiments?

Ideally, there would be a smooth transition from unbiased scientific observation to its caring, principled application. Still, this uneasy relationship between emotion and science will remain as long as scientists continue to ask questions.

GC raises tuition

Get ready to beg, borrow or steal. Governing Council voted on April 10 to approve tuition fee hikes, which will see an average increase of 4.27 per cent for domestic students and 6.6 per cent for international students. Fee increases have been an almost annual practice since the Harris government’s cutbacks to post-secondary funding in the 90s. After premier Dalton McGuinty ended a brief, two-year fee freeze in September 2006, activists have been campaigning for a reinstatement of the freeze. Last year, after GC voted to increase fees, financial reports showed a net income of $134.5 million on U of T’s operations.

The new fee hike has student unions worried that U of T will become less financially accessible.

Rob Steiner, U of T’s AVP of strategic communications, dismissed the possibility of financial barriers. “The university has an iron-clad accessibility guarantee that financial considerations will not keep you from either entering or completing a program you’re admitted into,” said Steiner. “A large amount of our budget goes into that guarantee.”

A bigger deterrent, according to Steiner, is the belief that university is more expensive than it actually is. “When folks go around pretending that there are 20 per cent fee increases, that’s fear-mongering,” he said. The whopping 23.5 per cent increase, the highest of the fee hikes, applies to international students entering the Masters music composition program, which Steiner called a “separate matter.”

“It has an unfortunate effect on people who don’t realize how accessible education already is,” he said.

UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener disagreed, saying that while students from the lowest-income groups can barely get by with financial aid grants, the fee hike would affect the middle class the most. “It’s the middle class that is not being allowed to access the grants,” he said, “and not being able to pay fees without a massive debt-load and a part-time job.”

Artsci calendar reshuffled

The Arts & Sciences Faculty Council has approved sweeping changes to the academic schedule, as well as curriculum requirements that will affect all programs of study.

Starting in September, Arts & Sciences programs will begin incorporating a whole new bag of tricks termed “degree objectives” into degree requirements. The faculty council proposed that programs implement additional requirements within five years.

The new criteria are meant to enhance academic learning by focusing on areas such as information literacy, communications, social ethics, and quantitative reasoning. “Achieving these degree objectives will prepare our graduates with the transferable skills necessary given the dynamic nature of the workforce and the world today,” said Suzette Stevenson, vice dean of students in Arts & Science, who oversaw the changes.

The restructuring of the academic calendar will take effect in September 2009. The bottom line: more free time. Final exams will not be scheduled after April 30, giving students a chance to find summer jobs that will actually look good on a resume. Both fall and winter semesters will receive an additional “study break”.

This move is meant to ease academic workload by providing students with as much time as possible to focus on classes, without having to worry about cramming for exams.

An “intersession” has also been carved into the calendar. Right before the summer session, students will have a chance to go on field studies or get international work experience.

Combining theories learned in lecture halls with practical and technical training sounds like a great idea. Giving students an extra week to catch up sounds even better. But if students receive more breathing room, only to have to complete another set of requirements, doesn’t that put us back at square one?

Dept. of Electile Dysfunction: Hayes Vs. Grove-White

The divisive showdown for the ASSU presidency just got messier. Thanks to a lack of clear rules, two controversial elections between incumbent Ryan Hayes and challenger Colum Grove-White have sparked complaints to admin, who have threatened to withhold funding to the student union.

Grove-White was elected ASSU president by a narrow vote of 25-21 at the March 18 council meeting. Hayes, however, presented a formal complaint to CRO Ausma Malik, alleging pre-campaigning violations on the part of Grove-White.

Malik threw out the election results on April 23, on grounds of “procedural issues” and libel in campaign material and held a re-election. This time, council voted 23-21 in favour of Hayes.

At that meeting the council debated over muddled rules—and who’s to blame for them. While Malik dropped the issue of pre-campaigning, she noted that the CRO of the initial election failed to provide all candidates with rules. Sheila Hewlett, council member, then pinned the problem on the executive, who she said “failed to let the CRO know that he was CRO for the election in question.”

According to executive member Patrick Adler, no election rules actually exist. Hayes and Grove-White both took the opportunity to give their interpretation of proper election procedures.

Reading an excerpt from an MSN conversation with Saswati Deb, Hayes said that the only set of rules that were ever generally accepted had to do with pre-campaigning. Grove-White responded that since neither the ASSU constitution nor the operating Bourdinot’s Rules of Order have rules for elections, no rules were broken.

Following Hayes’ victory in the second election, Grove-White’s supporters, Adler among them, filed a complaint with Jim Delaney, director of the Office of the Vice-Provost. Accusations include undemocratic process in electing the president, executive, and chair of the meeting, as well as failure to inform council members of the April 23 meeting and election.

These objections, along with a complaint on the ASSU’s spending habits, prompted Delaney to send a formal letter to Hayes, requesting a response to the allegations and minutes of the meeting, by May 2. The letter also cites the Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, which states that further installments of student fees may be withheld if constitutional problems are not reviewed.

Hayes argues that the administration is infringing on the rights of a student union, and likens it to “the management of a corporation withholding the core funding of their workers’ labour union.” Admin interference, he said, is not unique to this situation and has involved numerous legal threats over the years, including a lawsuit over the CFS referendum. “ASSU is a democratic body that follows its own by-laws and constitution. Any disagreement can be brought to our executive or addressed at council meetings.”

Council member Adler expressed reluctance at the admin’s involvement, but said they are best suited to mediate as the ASSU can’t seem to settle the matter on its own. The next step, he said, would be to establish concrete policies for elections in the ASSU constitution.

Dalla Lana lures Canuck back home

This September, U of T is set to open the largest public health school in Canada. The Dalla Lana School of Public Health will be geared towards researching epidemics such as avian flu, and studying health care systems, both domestic and international. The school is named after Paul Dalla Lana, who gave $20 million to fund research chairs and scholarships.

The university has recruited Canadian epidemiologist Jack Mandel back from the U.S. to head the new school. The Winnipeg native is returning from a similar position at Emory University in Atlanta.

“My goal is within five years we’re a destination university for public health […] among top schools in the world,” said Mandel.

The new school is to be housed within the Faculty of Medicine and will build upon its existing department of public health sciences, as well as collaborate with other faculties like nursing, dentistry, and law. Prevention of infectious diseases and better communication between researchers are among the school’s goals, as U of T looks to grow as an internationally competitive research university.

Paul Cantin, director of communications for the Faculty of Medicine, said the “significant increase” in the number of students and faculty studying public health is imperative for the university to be recognized as a global establishment.

The new grad school was unveiled in an April 30 press conference, soon after U of T president David Naylor announced his long-term intentions of boosting graduate studies and decreasing undergrad spots.

Naylor argued that cutting the number of undergrad students would improve the faculty-to-student ratio. “We believe we can be better at undergraduate education on the St. George campus if we just reduce the numbers,” he told the Globe & Mail.

While UTM and UTSC will see an increase in undergrad enrolment, the St. George campus will lose spots by a greater number. Graduate enrolment is set to grow at all three campuses.

Water safety under the bridge: fed judge

The call for an investigation into drinking water experiments in Wiarton, Ontario has fizzled, after a federal judge ruled in favour of the research-granting council NSERC. Former U of T grad student Christopher Radziminski, backed by CFS, had called on NSERC to launch an inquiry into the Wiarton study.

Radziminski is a former U of T grad student who received a research scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. His Master’s thesis found that the chemical “chlorine dioxide could be used to effectively treat water only if used in quantities that violate the American EPA’s safety standards.”

But U of T prof Robert Andrews, Radziminski’s supervisor, used his research to publish claims that the chemical was safe in two scientific journals. Under contract with ERCO Worldwide (previously Sterling Pulp Chemicals Ltd.), Andrews tested a newly patented chlorine dioxide generator on the water supply of Wiarton, Ontario—without the town’s knowledge or consent—in the summer of 2000.

Residents’ complaints of strange odours in drinking water and spots on their laundry were logged with the Ontario Clean Water Agency and in several daily newspapers, yet Andrews and Georges Ranger, a patent-holder for the chemical being tested, called the experiment a success. “No customer taste and odor complaints were reported during the study period,” reads an article on the Wiarton study published in the Journal of Environmental Engineering and Science.

After U of T refused to investigate, Radziminski called on NSERC, the research-granting council, to launch an inquiry into the Wiarton case. When appeals to the NSERC failed, the Canadian Federation of Students backed Radziminski and filed an application with the federal court, contesting NSERC’s decision.

In April, Justice O’Keefe ruled that NSERC did not act improperly: while the council provides funding to universities for research and can order investigations into experiments which it has financially supported, it did not directly fund the Wiarton study and thus did not have authority to order an investigation.

Bad Movie Makes Good

When I call Michael Stephenson for an interview about Troll 2, the 1990 film in which he made his screen debut at age ten, the first thing he asks me is, “Have you seen the movie?” When I say yes, he responds, “Okay…should I apologize now?”

Troll 2 is a bad movie, and one whose sheer horribleness has been transformed into an underground cult phenomenon. Stephenson stars as little Joshua Waits, the youngest member of an all-American family who has moved to the town of Nilbog (spell it backwards). Things become complicated when cannibal monsters and goblins begin to attack. Little people in unconvincing costumes play the goblins, and there is a heavy reliance, I’m afraid, on green ooze, which doesn’t usually spell Oscar nomination. Incidentally, you may wonder why I haven’t mentioned any trolls. This is because the movie contains only goblins. The original title was Goblins, but the name change is the least of their problems.

Troll 2 contains just about everything you could ask for in a cheesy movie. The acting and dialogue are weak (sample: “They’re eating her! And they’re going to eat me! Oh my GAAAAWWWD!”), the special effects are inept, and certain scenes are so misguided they achieve a certain surrealistic brilliance (Joshua discovers that goblins have poisoned his family’s food and he needs to find a way to prevent them from eating it. He unzips his fly, and…) But what benefit can rational criticism serve when faced with such a strange movie? It’s good, campy fun.

On May 31 at the Bloor Cinema, Toronto audiences will have a chance to attend Canada’s first theatrical screening of Troll 2. Organized by Rue Morgue and Toronto After Dark, cast members Michael Stephenson and George Hardy will be in attendance. And yes, you too will have a chance to ask them what they were thinking.

Fortunately, I was able to ask Stephenson this exact question. Troll 2 was an Italian production, produced by legendary schlockmeister Joe D’Amato (who created such classics as Cave Dwellers, Porno Holocaust, and Caligula: The Untold Story) and directed by Claudio Fragasso under the brilliant pseudonym Drake Floyd. Of the audition process, Stephenson says, “I just remember Claudio, the director, just kind of in this smoke, and he’s chattering in Italian to all the other crew members. And then Claudio kneeled down in front of me and said, ‘Okay, Michael, we improvise’—y’know, in broken English—and he started saying things like, ‘Pretend there’s a scary spider on your face! Pretend you’re in haunted house!’ And I just screamed and had fun and made a lot of faces.”

“My dad, he’s kinda conservative, and he started reading the script, and got halfway through it and said, ‘Man, Michael, this is a weird movie. Are you sure you want to do this?’ And of course, I was all for it, and so they thought at the time, ‘Well, maybe movie magic will intervene here and the script won’t be as bad as we think it is.’”

The shoot, as in most low-budget horror films, was rushed and chaotic. “Claudio’s got a lot of heart. He’s very, very passionate, but very intense, and on the set everybody was kind of afraid of him, because he was just always yelling. Like, one take and it was always like, ‘Move on! You’re too slow! Move on! FASTER! QUICKER! FASTER!’ You know, always yelling. Nobody knew what was going on, there was constant confusion, there were actors off to the side going through their lines together saying, ‘But, this doesn’t make sense; should we change this?’”

“As a ten-year-old, I got paid not very much at all,” says Stephenson. “But I got paid to show up on set and make faces and scream and run from midgets in potato sacks and ride a skateboard, and it was a lot of fun.”

Released in Europe in 1990, the film was dumped unceremoniously to video in North America. For years Stephenson was “horribly embarrassed” by his inexperienced performance. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to die and be remembered as the guy who pees all over his family dinner!’”

But in recent years, as fan mail has built up and curators invite him for Q&A’s, Stephenson began to reevaluate his opinion of ‘the Citizen Kane of bad movies.’ “You see things on people’s MySpace pages under favourite movies like, The Shawshank Redemption and Crash and Troll 2.” In addition to touring with the film, Stephenson is directing a documentary about the production called Best Worst Movie, scheduled for release sometime this year.

Despite being slammed as ‘so-bad-it’s-good,’ Troll 2 has played to packed houses, and Stephenson himself has consistently received kind words. But if making fun of bad movies is traditionally a mean-spirited activity, how can Troll 2’s fan base be so affectionate? Maybe it’s because unlike a big-studio bomb, Troll 2 is not really an insult to either our culture or our wallets—it’s harmless stuff. Viewers tend to like whatever makes them laugh, no matter how intentional or unintentional the guffaws become.

Last year, Stephenson contacted Claudio Fragasso to tell him about Troll 2’s ironic popularity. “There was this long pause, and then finally he said, ‘Why now, after 18 years, they finally decide they like my movie?!’”

Troll 2 plays at the Bloor Cinema (506 Bloor St. W.) on Saturday May 31 at 9:30 p.m.