Science in brief

The science stories making headlines around the world this week

Rats and land mines

Every day, over 70 people are killed by land mines worldwide. Finding and disarming them is a difficult and dangerous task for humans. Due to these concerns, a Belgian NGO called APOPO has trained rats to do the job instead. Currently they are being used in Mozambique.

These special rats are referred to as Mine Detection Rats or MDRs. Rats have poor sight and, as such, they rely heavily on their sense of smell in order to detect the mines. 

In addition to their keen sense of smell, the rats are also light enough that they do not trigger the weapons if they do happen to walk over them.

The rats, which weigh as much as an average house cat, are trained to walk around on a leash and rapidly dig a hole wherever they smell explosives, which signals the human team that there is a mine allowing them to then disarm the device safely.

It takes nine months to train the rats. They are first trained to associate a click sound with a food reward. When this is complete the scientists associate the smell of explosives with both the click sound and the food reward. In practice this means that when the rats smell explosive material they stop, both indicating the presence of explosives and awaiting their reward.

  Since 2006 MDRs have helped rid Mozambique’s landscape of over 13,274 land mines, 1,142 bombs, and have also found 28,792 small arms.

— Hannah Joy

Mass surveillance

From the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, to social media platforms, and websites’ personalized ads, mass collection of data has been a controversial topic in recent times.

Still, many in the tech industry are managing this massive, yet readily available, data in an attempt to better our lives. A new project, headed by a professor of electrical and computer engineering at U of T, Alberto Leon-Garcia, will advise users to make better decisions when traveling by simply organizing and analyzing information.

In Leon-Garcia’s own words, he simply “[acted] according to demand, [got] data streams, [added] intelligence, [and applied] analytics.”

The end result is the Connected Vehicles and Smart Transportation (CVST) portal, an open media platform layered over Google maps that provides live information. It makes use of a wide range of public and private data resources, including live video feeds of traffic sensors and highway cameras operated by the City of Toronto; Twitter traffic reports; and the number of bikes docked at each Bike Share Toronto location.

In this day and age, when media platforms are part of every aspect of our lives, professor Leon-Garcia wants to harness the information around us in an attempt to manipulate “big data.”

— Luke Jeagal

Multiple sclerosis

A joint study conducted by researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and the University of Toronto has shed some light on the underlying mechanisms behind multiple sclerosis (MS).

Roughly 100,000 Canadians live with MS, an alarming statistic that puts us squarely in first place in the world. Most diagnoses occur between the ages of 15 and 40.

MS is known to occur when T cells, which are a component of the immune system, attack the body’s own nervous system. It has previously been thought that a different type of cell in the immune system, known as B cells, may also have a related inflammatory effect, however the underlying mechanism had yet to be elucidated.

The new study, however, has implicated a specific subset of B cells, called GM-CSF, as contributing to the inflammatory response.

“The study looked at some of the attributes of B cells coming from relapsing MS patients and allowed us to identify some B cell attributes that could be potential drivers of this disease,” said Dr. Jen Gommerman, an associate professor of immunology at U of T and contributor to the study.

“What the study found could potentially explain why depleting B cells, one of the current treatments for MS, could assist in MS recovery,” she concluded.

— Ahemad Hasan


A recent study published by Dr. Rachel Tyndale of U of T’s pharmacology and toxicology department, suggests that nicotine — the active ingredient in tobacco — might indirectly speed up the process by which codeine is converted to morphine in the brain through an enzyme.

Codeine is a common ‘analgesia’, or painkiller, whose derivatives include morphine and heroin.

The study, entitled “Nicotine  Increases  Codeine  Analgesia  Through  the  Induction of  Brain CYP2D  and  Central  Activation  of  Codeine  to Morphine,” investigated whether nicotine affected the activity of an enzyme called ‘CYP2D,’ which is responsible for converting codeine to morphine in rats.

While Tyndale and her team have only presented a preclinical model — meaning the model has not yet been tested on humans — the findings could prove to be of great significance, as this is the first study to demonstrate the direct effect of nicotine on drug metabolism in the central nervous system, in this case the brain.

While metabolism in the brain is the general area of research, this study specifically implies that the presence of nicotine in the brain can induce the conversion of codeine to morphine, increasing likelihood of addiction.

— Luke Jeagal

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