Mastering the court

The Tennis Masters Cup wrapped up last week in Shanghai, with number three seed Novak Djokovic winning the prestigious title. The last tournament in the ATP season, the Tennis Masters Cup featured a unique round-robin format not employed in any other tournament. The top eight seeded players are invited with the top two seeds placed in opposite groups. Roger Federer, the top seed in the tournament, was placed in the red group, whereas Novak Djokovic, the tournament’s second seed, was placed in the gold group. The remaining six players are randomly assigned to one of the two groups. The top two players from each group qualify for the semi-finals, and the subsequent winners play for the title.

The tournament featured new young talent with Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, and the gifted French player Gilles Simon—all of whom made their first appearance at the Tennis Masters Cup.

Roger Federer left the tournament in the round-robin matches with a 1-2 record. After losing to Gilles Simon, Federer had to defeat Andy Murray in his final match to qualify for the elimination round. Hampered by fatigue and a back injury, Federer lost to Murray.

Federer’s early exit marks the first time he’s failed to qualify for the tournament’s semi-finals, adding to a disappointing year compared to his previous results. Despite his poor results this season with only one grand slam win, Federer appeared pleased in his post-match press conference.

“It was a good season. I was happy I could win the U.S. Open for the fifth straight [time],” Federer said. “I’m looking forward to next year, to go for six. It was an incredible match at Wimbledon. [I had] very emotional victories in Basel, my hometown […] and winning the Olympic gold for Switzerland was a big moment for me. [It was] tough to start off with [and] tough to end.”

Gilles Simon, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Nikolay Davydenko qualified for the semi-finals. Djokovic defeated Simon in a tight three-set match 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, and Davydenko upset Murray 7-5, 6-2.

Last Sunday’s final was one-sided as Djokovic rolled past Davydenko 6-1, 7-5. Djokovic outplayed his opponent in every aspect, having converted more break points, winning the majority of the points with more winners and fewer unforced errors.

“I would put [the Tennis Masters Cup] in the same league as a Grand Slam because the best eight players in the world are participating here,” said Djokovic. “I feel very happy. Ended the season the way I started it, with a win in a big event. So it’s a great boost up for the upcoming season.”

Gracious in defeat, Davydenko acknowledged Djokovic’s fine play. “Against Djokovic you need to be perfect, you must also play very fast, and be very good. That’s what he did, and I didn’t.”

Ironically, the last tournament of the year had no effect on the rankings. Rafael Nadal, having secured the number one ranking prior to the tournament, subsequently withdrew from the competition, citing fatigue and a nagging knee injury. Despite his poor results, Federer remained at the number two spot, and Djokovic remained at number three.

In the doubles tournament, Canada’s Daniel Nestor and his partner Nenad Zimonjic won a dramatic winner-take-all final to overtake the number one ranking from Mike and Bob Bryan.

U Waterloo expands to Dubai

The University of Waterloo got one step closer to a Dubai campus, when its Senate voted Monday to “endorse [the plan] in principle.” U of W will operate “2+2 programs”: students will study in Dubai for two years and finish off their degrees in Waterloo. The United Arab Emirates campus’ initial programs will be chemical and civil engineering, starting in 2009. In 2010, IT management and finance will be added.

The university community raised questions about legal and cultural differences between Canada and the United Arab Emirates, including the UAE’s law against homosexuality and differences in women’s rights.

If U of W meets its enrolment targets, the Dubai programs would generate $22 million a year. The money would fund new math and engineering faculty positions, as well as construction projects for the Waterloo campus.

New collaboration stems from Toronto to Kyoto

Researchers from the University of Toronto and Kyoto University recently met in Japan to forge a revolutionary partnership on stem cell research. The collaboration has Toronto researchers joining forces with the world-renowned stem cell researcher Dr. Shinya Yamanaka.

For many years, scientists have studied embryonic stem cells (ES cells) due to their potential to differentiate into virtually any cell of the body. In 2007, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and his team made a revolutionary discovery. Using normal human skin cells, Dr. Yamanaka reprogrammed them to an embryonic-like form. These new cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) and are believed to have the same properties as ES cells.

“Together, we’ll share reagents, ideas and protocols to accelerate research and translate the research into clinical outcomes,” says Dr. Bill Stanford, associate director at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering and co-scientific director of the Ontario iPS Cell Facility. “This is quite important because this research has significant clinical potential, which is not 20 years down the line but, at least for some therapeutics, maybe 10 years.”

Dr. Stanford recently returned from a symposium in Kyoto, Japan. The scientist said that Dr. Yamanaka was amazed at the research Ontario scientists are doing. The collaboration will be a two-way partnership. For example, Kyoto researchers could provide new technologies to produce iPS cells and Toronto scientists may offer novel ways of differentiating these cells.

This partnership adds to Canada and Ontario’s growing list of research accomplishments in the field of stem cell biology. Since the 1960s, it was the work done by pioneers James Till and Ernest McCulloch of the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto that sparked the field of stem cell biology. Since then, Canada continues to rank in the top six countries internationally for its ongoing leadership in stem cell research. In a recent industry briefing, it was noted that nearly one third of all stem cell researchers are from Ontario.

Since Till and McCulloch, stem cell research has branched out into many discrete and exciting fields of study. Dr. Stanford and his team work on modelling human diseases with genetically altered mice. “Now, we can model human diseases with actual human sample by generating iPS cell lines from patients and differentiating these cells to the affected cell types,” explains Stanford. The scientists hope to uncover underlying causes of the disease and develop drug screens to discover effective drug treatments.

The two major advantages of iPS cells are due to the way they form. No fetal embryonic tissue is required for the development of iPS cells—all the work is done in the Petri dish. Therefore, the ethical dilemma that was one of the major barriers in stem cell research is no longer a factor. Furthermore, by using reprogrammed cells from the original patient, the chance that the patient will undergo immunological rejection is unlikely.

Although iPS cells can differentiate into any cell type, “initially research will concentrate on treating and understanding paediatric conditions and developmental disorders because they can be easily modelled,” Stanford says. These include conditions such as cystic fibrosis (CF) or autism.

“With iPS cells, researchers at Sick Kids are trying to develop a proper protocol to differentiate these cells into lung epithelium cells so they can study Cystic Fibrosis iPS cells and perform drug screens,” says Stanford. This research would greatly help the lives of the one in 3,600 Canadian children that have CF.

In addition to paediatric conditions, iPS cells can be easily differentiated into neurons. Dr. James Ellis, associate professor in the Department of Medical Genetics at U of T and co-scientific director of the Ontario iPS cell facility, studies neurological disorders and will be involved in this research collaboration.

Dr. Ellis and his team study Rett syndrome, a neurodegenerative childhood disease, similar to autism. It affects one out of every 10,000 baby girls. “With iPS technology we can differentiate the cells into neurons and study the disease with quite ease,” says Ellis. He adds that this would normally be very difficult because you cannot extract nerve cells from living individuals’ brains.

This technology also gives scientists the ability to better model neurological diseases like Rett syndrome because mice and humans are not exactly equivalent. “Humans have certain higher cognitive abilities that can’t be translated into mouse models,” says Ellis.

Dr. Ellis will also be involved in the partnership between Toronto and Kyoto. “Since we have so many patients in Ontario, we offer a large diversity of patient samples on which models and treatments can be made from,” explains Ellis. “iPS cells also allow us to test drugs using a Petri dish and not making patients go through the treatments to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Although not in the immediate future, Ellis and Stanford agree that this partnership will spark the possibility of cell based therapy and transplantation. “Imagine a patient who suffers from heart disease, with iPS cells we will be able to repair the heart with the patients’ skin cells,” says Ellis. However, he adds, iPS cells need to be rendered safe before this application can be successful. It would require the use of retroviruses, which could enable cells to proliferate uncontrollably—a characteristic seen in cancer.

“Eventually, cell based therapies will be possible and patient specific iPS cells would be possible and that is one of the exciting things of these cells and this partnership,” says Stanford.

UTSC library never closes

UTSC students can now camp out at the library 24/7. A pilot project has the stacks open 24 hours a day, following students’ suggestions in a survey. Victoria Owen, head librarian, said UTSC will take note of how many people use the service before making the hours permanent. The project has run since October.

At St. George campus, Robarts Library is open 24 hours a day on weekdays, but students can’t access stacks after 11:45 p.m.

Cloned Meat

Since the first successful mammal cloning experiment, science has made giant leaps in biotechnology and genetic engineering. In 2002, cloned meat was reported safe for human consumption by the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. In December 2006, the FDA corroborated previous reports.

However, many Americans and food producers feel uneasy. According to Will Rostov, a senior attorney at the Center for Food and Safety, “People tend to feel less repulsed by eating the offspring, so it’s clone descendents that we’ll eat—though we probably won’t know for sure.”

Genetic modification is inevitable in the cloning process. In fact, premature death and disease outbreaks are common in cloned animals. “Genetic uniformity [leaves] them prone to disease outbreaks or even bioterrorism. With traditional breeding you’re trying to improve the genetics. Cloning freezes it at one moment,” says Rostov. The same is true for in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination.

The FDA assures that these animals are tested. Only the offspring of healthy clones are given the stamp of approval. These clones are mainly used as breeding stock for farmers. “Cloning acts as an ‘insurance program’ for breeders allowing them to preserve the genes of [strong, healthy] cows and bulls to create a clone for later breeding,” says University of Purdue geneticist Bill Muir.

Many cloning companies and scientists agree that cloned products are safe to eat because the animals that survive are typically normal. Nutrient content in cloned products is comparable to naturally bred animals. The cost to clone a cow is about $17,000 USD, dropping as multiple copies are produced. Blake Russell, vice president of sales and business development at cloning company ViaGen, says that “with natural or assisted reproduction, roughly five to 10 per cent of all females and 50 per cent of all males bred for better genetics don’t inherit their parents’ best qualities and must be sold at a loss, as “salvage” animals. Cloning, on the other hand, almost guarantees the high-fidelity replication of desirable traits.”

This could translate to an added $24,000 value added annually for every $3,000 cloning investment. Positive economically, the disease risk and adverse health effects seem to be less well studied.

Some scientists aren’t as concerned with the effect on humans as the animals’ health. Creating a monoculture makes animals more susceptible to disease, due to a lack of genetic variation. A weakened immune system is one such result of inbreeding.

American consumers may not know if their local supermarkets are stocking cloned products because the FDA doesn’t require product labeling. Sale of cloned products is forbidden in Canada. In 2007 Health Canada officials stated they were waiting on FDA results, meaning cloned meat could find its way onto our dinner plates in the near future.

Angels help Rye High start-ups

Ryerson University has created the Ryerson Angel Network, connecting angel investors to student and alumni entrepreneurs. The program is the first of its kind in Canada.

Angel investors help start-up companies, supplying funds and expertise. In exchange, angels partly own the company through shares.

RAN has partnered with the National Angel Capital Organization to find 20 angel investors.

Making moral decisions in a health care crisis

A report published by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Joint Center for Bioethics is shaping global attitudes towards pandemic preparedness planning.

The Stand on Guard for Thee report, published in 2005, outlines an ethical framework for decision makers—hospital administrators, physicians, nurses, epidemiologists, public health workers—planning for a global influenza pandemic.

The report identifies key ethical issues. For instance, what kind of obligations do health care workers provide when they’re at risk of infection? Who should have priority access to precious reserves of vaccines, and when is it justified to limit civil rights to control a virulent infection?

Dr. Ross Upshur, one of the authors of the report, notes that the report is not a how-to guide. Rather, it outlines the ethical values helpful in making difficult decisions in times of a health crisis.

The team who wrote the report included researchers from several Toronto Academic Health Sciences Centres and the University of Toronto, coordinated through the JCB. The framework was incorporated into the Ontario Influenza Pandemic Plan, published in 2005.

The report was penned as avian flu was spreading across Asia, Europe, and Africa. While experts agree likelihood of an influenza pandemic on the scale of the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu outbreak—which killed more than 40 million people—is slim, they believe it will be difficult to predict the severity of the next outbreak. The time to plan is now.

Many of the issues highlighted in Stand on Guard for Thee stem from research done by members of the JCB on the Toronto SARS crisis of 2005, illustrating the need for ethical guidelines in a successful pandemic plan.

Dealing with potential ethical pitfalls before a pandemic hits will help to avoid situations like SARS and Katrina, says Dr. Upshur. In these instances, conflicting ethical agendas were dealt with in haste, and ad-hoc decisions were made, breeding resentment among both the public and those working on the frontline.

“One indicator of failure is if you look at the pandemic response after the fact and you find that only people with high socio-economic status or connections got into intensive care,” Upshur says. “Then you’ve got a problem, and you have to be accountable for that problem.”

Instead, he suggests it’s important to deal with these issues so that stakeholders—those making the decisions, and those affected by them—have a chance to give their input. “So, like in an election, you may not like the result, but you had your chance to constitute what that response might be.”

The next critical step is gauging public opinion. Dr Upshur is currently heading a nationwide survey asking Canadians what their priorities are in a health care emergency. He and his research team have spent the last two years doing telephone surveys, town hall meetings, and engaging professional organizations.

Interestingly, says Dr. Upshur, many people “think the most important point of pandemic preparedness is actually protecting health globally—saving lives not just within borders.”

The results of the survey were presented at a recent conference in Winnipeg where experts from disciplines including virology, epidemiology, and public health ethics met to discuss the results of a network of two-year studies on pandemic preparedness funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research. Dr. Upshur hopes the conference will help to strengthen national and international research networks, lending clarity to nationwide pandemic planning policy. It will give researchers from around the world the opportunity to exchange information on how ethical frameworks adapt to different cultures and circumstances.

Governments and organizations world wide have given the report an enthusiastic welcome. The National Bioethics Commission of New Zealand has adapted the principles, integrating Maori values such as neighbourliness to reflect local cultural norms. The World Health Organization is incorporating an ethical dimension into its plan for drug-resistant tuberculosis.

The report calls for a degree of stewardship by developed nations in guiding and mentoring developing nations. These countires could potentially be the hardest hit in the event of an international health crisis and might not have the resources to deal with a large-scale pandemic.

Give the big three what they don’t deserve

There is a good chance that Big Three automakers will not survive into the New Year unless they secure access to a huge bailout comprised of taxpayers’ money. The auto industry is a mess, and given the impact a collapse would have, so are we. President-elect Barack Obama favours a bailout, on the condition that companies revamp their operations to produce energy efficient vehicles. In a pathetic attempt at lame duck power wielding, President George W. Bush told Congress that any money for the Big Three is contingent upon approving the free trade deal with Columbia. Even the Harper Conservatives have floated the idea of a joint bailout with the U.S. government.

Do the Big Three automakers deserve a bailout? By and large, Detroit doesn’t deserve more than a swift kick in the ass. But the U.S. government should—and will—give them the bailout money they require. And everyone but Mitt Romney can see why.

For several decades, the auto industry’s management has been extremely myopic. Transfixed by a seemingly endless supply of cheap oil and the profit to be made in a booming economy, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler focused their energies on producing large cars, trucks, and SUVs for the American market. Their size was inversely proportional to their quality, and planned obsolescence reached a whole new level. Consumer appetites were voracious, and dealerships selling the same products sprouted on every spare intersection in every city, town, and hamlet.

As these three American giants rode the wave of easy profits, Japanese, Korean and German counterparts introduced smaller, more efficient vehicles to the American and Canadian market. Even American-owned subsidiaries in Europe introduced smaller cars. It wasn’t until the recent spike in gas prices that Americans and Canadians purchased vehicles from Honda, Toyota, and Kia. These American icons are imploding, but perhaps the fault lies with the buyer.

Adversarial unions in the U.S. and Canada have lagged behind. Instead of opting for an industrial-representative model and guaranteeing themselves seats on boards of directors, they demanded ever more from management, becoming a serious drain on the companies’ resources. For instance, unions and management are both politically powerful constituencies, yet neither agitated for national health care in the U.S. Most of the money from sales went directly towards health care costs for employees and retirees.

Now we are faced with a dilemma. Only the deluded think that the auto giants deserve money from the government, and yet we cannot allow these companies to implode. Far too many livelihoods depend on the auto industry, either directly or indirectly. The loss of any one of the Big Three would be devastating to those who do not deserve to suffer.

The people who depend on these companies are not union bosses, economists, or executives. Rather, they are machinists, accountants, factory foremen, sales reps, and retirees. Employees who, for better or worse, did what their culture told them to do: work hard, spend much, and save when you can. To forsake these Americans would be downright criminal, and create a culture of callousness from which we might never recover.

The ripple effect of a collapse would be felt by all over: parts suppliers all over North America, restaurant owners and their staff, high paid consultants, and retailers. The list is practically endless.

You often have to prune back to grow, but over-pruning can kill the plant just as it can revitalize it. If the government takes no action now, there might not be any manufacturing sector to speak of. Ultimately the face of North American manufacturing must change fundamentally.

If the U.S. is willing to spend $700 billion to bail out greedy bankers, there is no justification for allowing the Big Three, upon which millions depend for their livelihoods, to languish in the cold.