WENDY ZHANG/THE VARSITY

The year 2017 marked a turning point in Canadian science. After years of lagging innovation and discovery, U of T set precedent by penning the Naylor Report, which outlined federal recommendations for accelerating research in Canada. The U of T-led #SupportTheReport campaign also brought attention to efforts to reclaim Canada as a global research and innovation hub.

Policy-related developments aside, U of T made significant strides at the forefront of scientific research. Below are some of the top stories of 2017.

January

Rare childhood brain cancer demystified by U of T research

U of T scientist Dr. Daniel De Carvalho and his team classified the atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumour into subgroups and discovered ways to treat the stubborn brain cancer.

Scientists sequenced the beaver genome

Dr. Stephen Scherer, a U of T professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics, and his team were the first to sequence the beaver genome. In doing so, they helped develop ‘de novo sequencing,’ which allowed scientists to compare and analyze DNA of different species and eventually develop targeted diagnostic tools.

February

Machine learning accelerated drug discovery

In a collaborative study, a team of U of T researchers under Professor David Fleet, Chair of the Computer and Mathematical Sciences department at UTSC, developed algorithms to determine the 3D structure of a protein structure. These machine learning algorithms were able to compute a protein’s structure in mere minutes, and they can aid in drug discovery and biological research.

Researcher examined how athletes use pain to create social bonds

Kristina Smith, a graduate student in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at U of T, theorized that mixed martial artists linked their ability to control their emotional pain as an indicator of masculinity. Smith’s findings encouraged open communication to facilitate a supportive community among athletes and coaches.

March

New ways of measuring biodiversity loss

In a study led by Dr. Xingfeng Si, researchers at UTSC found that many of the smaller islands of China’s Thousand Island Lake had a smaller functional diversity than larger lakes. When functional similarity was considered, the degree of biodiversity declined, including the number of functional niches.

Correlation found between baldness and risk of prostate cancer

Male pattern baldness is a sign of being at risk for prostate cancer. Although the mechanism is unclear, Dr. Neil Fleshner, Head of U of T’s Division of Urology at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, suggested that fluctuations in androgen levels could explain the link between baldness and prostate cancer risk.

Largest genomic analysis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) uncovered new genes

In a collaboration between U of T and Google, a team led by Drs. Ryan Yuen and Stephen Scherer analyzed over 5,000 samples from families and determined 61 genes linked to an increased chance of ASD development, confirming the genetic basis for ASD. In addition, the researchers found 80 per cent of these genes could be targets for future drug treatments.

April

Tim Hortons found to be the best location for AED placement

Professor Timothy Chan, a U of T Mechanical and Industrial Engineering professor, and Christopher Sun, a PhD candidate, analyzed the most accessible locations for AED placement in the event of a cardiac emergency. They concluded that Tim Hortons ranked the highest, with over 300 locations in Toronto alone.

May

Raquel Urtasun joined Uber research team in developing self-driving cars

Urtasun, a U of T Department of Computer Science associate professor, joined Uber as the head of the first Advanced Technologies Group outside of the US. Her team plans to build on autonomous driving by developing inexpensive sensors that would allow cars to visualize surroundings and safely navigate roads.

June

U of T undergraduate student contributed to machine learning study at Google

Fifth-year Aidan Gomez co-authored a paper that explored the ability of neural networks to multitask and apply learned knowledge to new tasks in a process known as ‘transfer learning.’

July

Hand cleansing found to shift your goals

Physical cleansing, specifically of the hands, was found to have psychological implications. A study led by PhD student Ping Dong and Assistant Professor Spike WS Lee found that this process removed psychological separation of past events and made it easier for subjects to switch to a task that required a different mindset.

Facial cues were found to be linked to social class

People can likely determine others’ social class through facial cues like attractiveness and warmth. A study by PhD candidate Thora Bjornsdottir and U of T Associate Professor of Psychology Nicholas Rule suggested a link between prejudice and visual perception.

August

Dunlap Institute hosted a solar eclipse viewing at CNE

On August 21, 2017, at approximately 2:32 pm, a partial solar eclipse could be seen in Toronto. Torontonians saw about 70 per cent of sun coverage; the full eclipse could be seen in the US.

September

Researchers found potential cure to type 1 diabetes in pancreatic cell transplants

A study led by Alexander Vlahos, a PhD candidate at U of T’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, discovered injecting healthy pancreatic cells under the skin can produce insulin and help maintain normal blood sugar levels.

October

Professor’s startup received funding to develop cancer therapies

Patrick Gunning, UTM Professor and Canada Research Chair in Medicinal Chemistry, co-founded Janpix. Janpix has received $22 million in venture capital to accelerate research in oncology treatments. Gunning’s therapies, which inhibit STAT proteins identified in some human cancers, are expected to proceed to clinical trials within the next two years.

U of T researchers contributed to the Nobel prize-winning search for gravitational waves

Drs. Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering contributions to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the confirmation of gravitational waves. U of T researchers, including a team led by Dr. Harald Pfeiffer of U of T’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics and graduate student Heather Fong, were among the 1,167 researchers in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration that brought these discoveries to light.

November

Lipoxin molecules found to hold potential glaucoma treatment

A team of researchers led by Dr. Jeremy Sivak, the Glaucoma Research Chair at the Krembil Research Institute in Toronto, found that lipoxin molecules secreted by astrocyte cells in the retina can protect optic neuronal cells, which can be used in the treatment of glaucoma.

U of T professor named Ontario’s first Chief Scientist

Molly Shoichet, a U of T professor in Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and a director at the Institute for Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering, was named Ontario’s Chief Scientist. In an effort to boost innovation in Ontario, the position was created to advise the provincial government on science-related policies and issues.

December

U of T researcher found Earth-like conditions on exoplanet and discovered new planet

Ryan Cloutier, a PhD student at the Centre of Planetary Science at UTSC, found K2-18b, an Earth-like planet orbiting a red-dwarf star, by taking measurements of its mass and radius. It is now “one of the best targets for atmospheric study.” In the process, Cloutier also discovered an exoplanet in the same solar system.

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