U of T researchers discover protein key to stem cell development

U of T researchers recently identified a new protein responsible for regulating development in mouse embryonic stem cells.

In an article published in Cell Stem Cell, PhD candidate Emily Walker found that the polycomb-like 2 (PCL2) protein modulates embryonic stem cell fate. This is the first time that the PCL2 protein has been studied in mammalian cells. In the absence of PCL2, embryonic stem cells undergo continual self-renewal and lose their ability to differentiate. Embryonic stem cell differentiation is essential to produce the many cell types that form our organs and tissues.

To understand the importance of PCL2 in stem cell development, Professor William L. Stanford, Canada Research Chair in stem cell bioengineering and functional genomics, along with his group identified the genes responsible for regulating PCL2 production, in particular, a gene target called Tbx3, which has been implicated in embryonic stem cell self-renewal.

In PCL2-deficient cells, self-renewal is impaired and looks very similar to cancer cell growth. Cancer cells not only divide continuously, but they also lose the ability to differentiate into appropriate cells and instead develop into a tumour.

Stanford’s group will consider the role of PCL2 in cancer cells, determining whether they express less PCL2 than normal cells and eventually search for drug treatments that rebalance PCL2 levels.

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Another interesting application relates to induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are generated by taking a cell (such as a skin cell) and reactivating genes that are critical for embryonic stem cells. “Embryonic stem cells and iPS cells are unique and powerful because they have the potential to become any cell type in the adult body. This property allows for many applications in regenerative medicine as you could potentially use those cells to rebuild or augment any type of tissue,” explains Walker.

Researchers have succeeded in making iPS cells, but methods to improve efficiency are still being studied. Since removing PCL2 protein prevents embryonic stem cells from differentiating, researchers are now interested in the effect of PCL2 removal on a differentiated cell.

The advancement of stem cell research offers a myriad of medical uses, and people are already banking in on the potential opportunities. At birth, a baby’s umbilical cord is full of cord blood and is a rich source of stem cells. Organizations like the Cord Blood Bank of Canada offer parents the opportunity to preserve stem cells in the umbilical cord blood for potential use in the child’s future.

In addition, the Ontario Human iPS Cell Facility, co-directed by Stanford, focuses on creating iPS cells from patients with a variety of genetic diseases. These cells can then be used as a tool to study these diseases in the lab.

The identification of PCL2 as an important regulator of embryonic stem cells opens up a new chapter for scientific study. To better understand and characterize the nature of stem cells, more studies on PCL2, its effects on cancer cells and iPS cells need to be conducted.

Fast Fashion

WOMEN

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Milan—NO. 21 (1)

Alessandro Dell’Acqua lost trademark rights to his name last year when he publicly attacked his label’s owners. He has finally returned under the guise of No. 21 with a collection focusing on practical daytime looks that are easy to wear. The clothing maintains the precise tailoring of menswear with staples such as collared shirts, knit sweaters, and trousers. No. 21 infuses neutrals with vibrant pastels, balancing modern looks with an ’80s colour palette. Thanks to sheer blouses and lace that show off more than just a little skin, though, this line is saved from being tagged as too conservative.


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London—SYKES (2)

Joanna Sykes’s collection was celebrated for its handsome jackets and blazers, though Sykes says the line’s driving force was inspiration from the triangular shapes of Islamic textiles. Either way, Sykes was able to bring playfulness and warmth to her designs.


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New York—PROENZA SCHOULER (3)

Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough’s upbeat theme quickly became apparent in a collection best summed up as showing “refined edge.” With eye-catching patterns and shapes, classic styles were reformed into sex-drenched high-waisted leggings and sheer mini-dresses.


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Paris—DRIES VAN NOTEN (4)

Belgian designer Dries Van Noten served up spot-on tailoring and military influences in his fall/winter collection. Neutrals dominate his vision for the cooler season ahead, but those who prefer multi-coloured outfits shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Dries’ work—the outfits are still attention-grabbing thanks to flawless construction that’s bold and memorable. Dries is not afraid to play with proportions, as trenches pull in at the waist, utility pants cinch in at the ankles, and dresses explode with 1950s silhouettes.


MEN

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Milan—ETRO (5)

The most appealing thing about Kean Etro’s collection is the way it reinvents traditional cuts with embellishments like odd brooches and exotic bird feathers. Also notable is his use of the most saturated earth tones possible.


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Paris—DIOR HOMME (6)

Dior Homme, the men’s label renowned for championing the close-cut look, has turned over a new leaf with a collection that lets it all hang loose. While minimalism is still at the core of the Dior Homme aesthetic, the clothes are light and transformative—think draping scarves and long jackets left unfastened with floppy lapels. Pants are tapered and cropped short with free flowing lines from the waist to the knees. Ensembles are pulled together with leather bags and slick black boots.


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London—PAUL SMITH (7)

Paul Smith created clothing exclusively for musicians before hitting top designer status, and his latest collection marks a return to his roots. The collection features influences ranging from Victorian gentlemen to post-punk rockers: highlights include bowler hats, capes, sleek blazers, plaid jackets, and skinny pants. Smith turns to rich blues and purples across a variety of styles for men of all ages, keeping proportions balanced so as not to overwhelm the men who wear his clothing.


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New York—MARC BY MARC JACOBS (8)

In past collections, Jacobs has been generous with his use of colour, but he’s taken a step back this season to use it more sparingly. Not that Jacobs wants to suck the colour out of your winter, but maybe he wants us to appreciate it in smaller doses? The result is a charming, neutral-hued wardrobe driven by details such as pocket squares, elbow patches, and khaki—you know, the kind you can easily replicate by visiting a local thrift shop.


TORONTO LG FASHION WEEK

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JESSICA BIFFI (9)

We can expect great things this season from Jessica Biffi as she takes on two collections, Addition Elle and Bold Biffi for MXM. The Guelph-born designer established her brand last year and already has the Canadian fashion community anticipating her latest work. Her past collections have employed exciting colour palettes and shapes, and she’s mixing her signature strengths this time around with phoenix iconography. She’ll also be announcing her new lines at the BIO reception on March 31.


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EVAN BIDDELL (10)

A Project Runway Canada winner, Evan Biddell is a self-taught designer with a strong penchant for designing “pure fantasy.” Biddell began designing at the age of 15, when he had trouble shopping for clothes at his local mall. Now, as one of Canada’s most promising young designers, we can expect to see a line full of extremes—tight tops and billowing dresses that are high on volume—as part of his fall/winter collection.

U of T plans to raise tuition, balance budget

Tuition fees will increase by an average of 4.31 per cent for domestic students and six per cent for international students, according to the tuition fee schedule presented to the Business Board on Monday. The hikes will go to Governing Council for final approval.

A 4.5 per cent hike will be applied to most undergrad programs, and four per cent to most grad programs. Exceptions are the eight per cent tuition increases for students entering pharmacy, engineering, dentistry, and law.

The board also heard the report for next year’s budget and long-range guidelines. After unprecedented endowment losses that led to the cancellation of a $62-million endowment payout in 2009, U of T plans to have a balanced budget next year.

The document also lays out plans for the next five years, which includes projects like a new student system to replace ROSI and a strengthening of infrastructure for research.

“It’s a well-balanced budget,” said Olivier Sorin, a graduate representative on Governing Council, happy to point out the increase in funding for merit-based scholarships. “Tuition increases, however? Not so great.”

Adam Awad, the president-elect of the U of T Students’ Union, called the tuition increase a move towards an increasingly privatized university that “continues to close doors to students from low and (increasingly) middle income backgrounds.” In an email to The Varsity, Awad wrote, “There are also some significant concerns over the Provost’s description of flat fees in the Faculty of Arts and Science as inevitable and permanent, in spite of the Governing Council’s mandated two-year review.”

Concerns

The budget report expressed concern that government funding won’t keep pace with the student population. With projected enrolment pressures that will continue at least until 2015, the report noted the potential for a “debilitating pro-ration of per-student grants.”

Pension liabilities continue to remain a concern. The combined pension plan deficit is currently over $1 billion. In February, president David Naylor announced that U of T would pursue a more conventional investment strategy, abandoning the aggressive style of big U.S. schools. There are plans to review funding strategies, investment risks, and return targets for pension funding in the coming months.

Balanced budget planned

Total revenue is expected to increase 9.4 per cent, from $1.44 billion in 2009-10 to $1.57 billion in 2010-11.

Last year’s cancelled endowment payout resulted in a $46 million loss for the operating budget, a loss that the budget acknowledges will still be felt in the coming years. A $45-million deficit fund was created to compensate. According to the report, divisions only drew $17.8 million from this fund, using unspent funds in endowment accounts as well as their own reserves to cover the shortfall. Since these funds have now been depleted, any future endowment issues cannot be similarly cushioned and would likely result in further budget cuts or increased burrowing.

Projected revenues have increased. A significant portion of tuition revenue increases is coming from international students and increased graduate enrolment, though revenue for doctoral students is typically a net zero for their first five years. The province’s tuition fee framework mandates that the average tuition for all students may not exceed five per cent a year. Though the mandate ends in April, U of T has assumed it will continue for the next few years.

*This article has been updated to include email comments from Adam Awad, president-election of the U of T Students’ Union.”

Photo opportunity

At the spacious, marble-floored MaRS building at the corner of University and College, Vincent Cheung won the student entrepreneur competition in the National Business and Technology Conference held last Friday and Saturday. Cheung, a PhD student at U of T, is a computer engineer and budding business mogul.

Cheung won for his company, Shape Collage Inc., which takes photos and makes them into any shape. On March 8, Cheung was named by the group Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship as the 2010 Student Entrepreneur Regional Champion, competing against students from Ontario and Quebec in front of a live panel of business professionals. He’ll go to the ACE national exposition in May and could move on to compete for the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.

In 2007, Cheung wanted to display pictures to family and friends but couldn’t find a program that worked well enough. He tinkered and came up with a new algorithm for automatically arranging photos in a collage.

“Imagine I give you 50 photos and I throw it on this table”—Cheung points to the square coffee table in front of him—“You’ll only be able to see five of them because they’re piled on top of each other. So what you would do is one by one spread them apart from each other and that’s essentially what the algorithm is doing. You randomly put this on a digital canvas and you move them around until you can see them all. The only difference is that this table can be any shape that you want, like a heart or a word.”

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At first, Cheung posted the program on his site, where it received no attention. But after more publicity, the program has, in Cheung’s words, “gone viral.” “In February last year I emailed a couple of blogs,” said Cheung. “I said, ‘Hi my name is Vincent and I made this program called Shape Collage.’ Maybe one out of the five websites would write a review about it. They would have a couple hundred or even a thousand viewers who would then find out about me and also start blogging.”

Shape Collage has had a million downloads in the past year. Cheung recently cut a deal with Photobox, the largest online printing company in Europe.

Cheung graduated at top of his class from the University of Manitoba. He has interned at Microsoft and Google.

As a computer engineering PhD candidate, Cheung focuses on machine learning and computer vision, using probability and statistics to make sophisticated algorithms for solving problems. He also does work with molecular biology, using algorithms to analyze DNA and genome data in order to find patterns that will become platforms for experimentation.

Cheung credits all his success to “hard work and an open mind.” On his website he calls himself the “CEO, founder, and janitor.”

“I don’t see the point of being money-intensive,” Cheung said. His extravagant purchase since his business took off was a new cell phone. He quickly explained that the phone is for business purposes, so that he can expand Shape Collage into phone applications.

Call and response

EA teacher sits in front of a group of students, gesticulating and acting out Jabberwocky. The students sit, rapt, and then recite bits of it back.

This is not your typical Grade 2 classroom.

Advanced nonsense poems are but one of the unconventional learning tools used by professor Mary Thelander in her “From 3 to 3” program, currently running in elementary schools in the Toronto District School Board, mainly in Etobicoke. The program aims to develop sequential and narrative reasoning in children from age three to Grade 3, especially those for whom English is a second language. It started off as a research project and moved into classrooms this year, carried out in partnership with U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships and Office of Student Affairs.

“After I finished my PhD at OISE, I was really interested in how children learn to understand what people mean, and realizing that to understand what somebody else means is a long process,” said Thelander.

She was especially interested in children learning English as a second language. “I wanted to know how children coming from non-Western cultures come to understand what’s going on at school—not just what the teacher said, but the meaning of what she said.”

The program operates in “that tire around Toronto where new families settle,” Thelander said, because it’s designed specifically for children “who are at a disadvantage because of cultural displacement, truncated language development, social isolation, and poverty.”

Thelander said that the opportunity for students to hear stories puts fun ahead of didacticism, getting kids to repeat back stories from fairy tales and literature—as well as poetry, chain rhyming, gestural rhyming—beginning in kindergarten and increasing in complexity over the years. As a result, teachers still use rhyming and oral storytelling up to Grade 3.

“From 3 to 3” relies heavily on tutors: U of T students from a broad range of studies and backgrounds. Thelander had hoped for a student involvement component in the program, and in her research she found that the children who were engaged with tutors did best of all.

“We are launched into a further two years in expanding the program and working with a developing student association to get more students involved with the community,” she said.

Thelander spoke of encouraging results. “One teacher said to me, ‘Mary, we’ve created a monster, they never shut up, they talk all the time—but no no, it’s okay, it’s productive talk.’ And to me, that’s huge.” She added that she saw kindergarteners understand the phrase “jewel-encrusted slipper” because of the teacher’s gestures and the context. “Particularly within a story environment, you can use more complicated language, because the story itself will help children understand language,” she said.

Students United escape DQ, sweep into UTMSU

Spring elections for the UTM Students’ Union brought record voter turnout and complaints. The entire Students United slate, as well as both presidential candidates, received enough demerits to be disqualified. After appeals, Vickita Bhatt and other Students United candidates no longer face disqualification. Unofficial results have Bhatt’s slate sweeping all executive positions, with 1,638 votes for Bhatt and 1,142 for her opponent, Henry Ssali, running on UTM Renew. Results must be ratified by the board of directors before they become official.

Executive candidates with over 35 points are disqualified. They can appeal to the Elections and Referenda Committee to overturn rulings by the chief returning officer, Kenny Lee. Upon appeals, Bhatt’s demerit points were reduced from 62 to 30 and Ssali’s from 36 to 26. UTM Renew plans to pursue several appeals next week.

“Most of the points reduced were because of lack of witnesses and evidence,” said Lee. “We brought in the individuals that were supposed to have committed the violations and they denied everything. We felt that we didn’t have any hard evidence against them, so we had to let it go.”

Peter Buczkowski, campaign manager for Henry Ssali, said that the Elections and Referenda Committee, which completed hearing the first round of appeals on Monday, was biased. He said that one of the three committee members, Hibba Amin, had changed her profile picture on Facebook to a Students United icon and urged others to vote for Students United in her status update. Buczkowski criticized the other two members of the committee, Carole Au Yeung and Joey Santiago, for not removing Amin.

Bhatt could not be reached for comment.
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UTMSU’s board of directors will strike a new committee at their March 25 meeting to hear arguments to “appeal the appeals.” Buczkowski said UTM Renew will pay the $30 fee to appear before that committee next week, as soon as it is established, but that he was unsure whether Renew would receive a fair hearing. “There’s a lot of talk around campus of a lot of the impartialities not existing where they have to, a lot of bias and sense of entitlement,” he said.

Asked if he felt the Renew slate had a chance at next week’s appeals, Lee said he was doubtful since the appeals committee serves mainly to remove points and not to add them. Lee also confirmed that a recount yesterday for one board of directors seat was completed and that the initial results were correct.

“To be honest I think some of [the candidates] were abusing the complaint system to try to get the other team disqualified,” said Lee, who said he was partially responsible for the high number of demerit points this year. “The moment I see a violation, I don’t give a warning. I punish immediately,” he said. “This year there were a lot of complaints, so it was the hope that by giving them points they would stop, but they didn’t.”

Lee said he was disappointed that candidates didn’t uphold the spirit of the elections. “I wouldn’t say either team was worse, but personally I think both teams were engaging in negative campaigning in one way or another.”

A previous version of this article reported that candidates met with the Elections and Referenda Appeals Committee. In fact, they met with the Elections and Referenda Committee.

Distribution requirements change for new artsci students

Incoming arts and science students in September will be required to fulfill four breadth requirement credits to complete their degrees, instead of three distribution requirement courses.

The changes are a result of the arts and science faculty’s curriculum renewal process, which examines the various principles behind degree requirements’ depth and breadth of study. The previous distribution requirement model was based on how departments were classified rather than the specific content of the courses.

“Some departments thought of themselves, for example, as ‘a social science department’ and so would classify all their courses that way, even if a particular course was similar to one of another department in a different group,” wrote Glen Loney, assistant dean of the arts and science faculty, in an email to The Varsity.

Rather than take one credit in science, humanities, and social science, students entering U of T in September 2010 or after must take one credit from four out of five categories: 1) Creative and Cultural Representations, 2)Thought, Belief, and Behaviour, 3) Society and Its Institutions, 4) Living Things and Their Environment, and 5) The Physical and Mathematical Universes.

“We wanted a set of categories that will spread the many courses we have in Arts & Science across a range that is characteristic of the [faculty], a set that will ensure our students study both sciences and arts in their degree,” said Loney.

Students must take a full course credit in four out of five breadth categories, or a full course credit in three categories and half a credit in each of the other two. The new categories also allow departments to list courses in more than one category. Some departments now have courses in three categories.

According to Loney, deciding on the number of courses generated much discussion.

“We settled on 4.0 courses, realizing that some of these categories—or indeed for some of our students, many of the categories—might be met within a single interdisciplinary program,” Loney said. “We thought that was not a true problem, since if the students were taking a broad range of courses in that program they would indeed be getting a broad education.”

“I think the changes will benefit U of T students,” said Cameron Davis, third-year political science student, “I’ve often found myself wanting to take more courses outside of my discipline, like in human biology and psychology, and this seems like a good opportunity for students such as myself.”

It’s all Greek

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