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 of T marks Transgender Day of Remembrance

Students and community members gathered to commemorate victims of anti-transgender hatred on Thursday, Nov. 20, marking the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

The day of remembrance was first marked in 1999, in memory of Rita Hester, a transgender woman who was murdered in Boston.

The Centre for Women and Trans People set up at Sidney Smith to discuss trans issues and violence, and afterwards decamped to the Centre’s headquarters on Spadina Avenue for a more intimate gathering.

Captive on film

The famed CBC documentary The U.S. vs. Omar Khadr was screened on Thursday evening to a packed auditorium at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Organized by The Muslim Students’ Association, the event brought to light the intricacies of Canada’s role in Khadr’s six-year confinement.

Khadr was 15 years old when he was accused of killing an American soldier with a grenade during a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002. The evidence used against him is based on a series of confessions Khadr made at the U.S. military base in Bagram and Guantanamo Bay. His defense team has argued that these confessions were wheedled out with torture.

The documentary paints a vivid minute-by-minute account of how Khadr ended up in Guantanamo. Included is the prisoner’s first-hand account of the torture and mistreatment he suffered, and the film leaves the audience sympathizing with Khadr by offering evidence that points to his innocence.

The film contends that U.S. forces were using torture as an interrogative method. This is later confirmed by one of Khadr’s interrogators and various cellmates. Outrageously, one of Khadr’s interrogators, Sergeant Joshua Claus, was convicted of the murder of a detainee in U.S. custody.

As the film poses central questions regarding the Canadian government’s role in prolonging Khadr’s confinement, viewers are introduced to Dennis Edney, Khadr’s Canadian lawyer who lambasts the nation and calls the notorious detention facility a “sham.” We learn that it is probable that the government knew Khadr was tortured in American custody since 2002 and remained apathetic to his condition. We witness what the young man will endure should he stand trial in a U.S. military tribunal—an institution allowed to pick the lawyers, jury, and the judge. They may even remove the judge if rulings are deemed unsatisfactory.

A number of filmgoers expressed alarm that they had remained uninformed of Omar Khadr’s case over the years.

“I was surprised at how much I didn’t know about Omar Khadr,” says Sarah Giles, a first-year student at the University of Toronto, “given that it seems to be such an important case for Canada. You would expect it to make headlines.”

Those like Saida Afroage, a fourth-year student, who have been avidly following the case, expressed their frustrations. “Part of the problem is the law itself. International laws provide protection for someone like Omar Khadr, but the U.S. military tribunals have their own laws and their own definitions of what they want certain things to mean. Like the definition of torture, central to Khadr’s case, is defined in vague terms distinct from the Geneva Conventions.”

“After working on this documentary and coming to know Omar Khadr, I am comfortable using the T-word,” said co-producer and CBC journalist Nazim Baksh, referring to the contention surrounding the role of torture in the Khadr case. “Journalists usually get quizzical and don’t want to get in trouble, but I feel comfortable saying he was tortured.”

Baksh expressed his concerns: “We need to do what people do in democracies, we need to approach our MPs and say we believe what is happening to Omar Khadr is not fair. I believe the aggressive foreign policy that governs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is wrong.”

Spearheaded by the MSA, the screening was supported by the student faction of a growing coalition to bring the Guantanamo detainee home. Jessica Hedges-Chou, a member of the undergraduate support group, hoped to spike a growing awareness. “Our goals for this event were really twofold. I already knew that it would raise awareness, so I wasn’t worried about that. For me, I wanted to broaden our support base and include a strong student group to join our coalition.”

“We are really at the beginning stages,” she adds, “but I was really happy with the event. After people saw the documentary, there were a lot of questions and emotions. People wanted to know how to get involved.”

How has public perception of Khadr’s case changed since the documentary aired?

According to CBC polls, subsequent to the premiere of The U.S. vs. Omar Khadr, 42 per cent of Canadians believe Khadr should be brought back home, while 20 percent of Canadians are undecided. Given previous polls, it seems the tides are changing in favour of repatriating the young prisoner.

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.