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Conservative MPP justifies charging interest during six-month grace period for recent graduates

Rudy Cuzzetto says policy is motivated by fiscal conservatism

Conservative MPP justifies charging interest during six-month grace period for recent graduates

At a conference for Progressive Conservative (PC) students held at UTM on January 19, MPP Rudy Cuzzetto justified his party’s recent changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Plan (OSAP), which were announced on January 17 as part of sweeping changes to postsecondary education.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Campus Association (OPCCA) South Regional Policy Conference was a chance for OPCCA clubs around Ontario to network and brainstorm policy proposals. 

During his speech, Cuzzetto — who represents Mississauga—Lakeshore — spoke specifically on the government’s change to OSAP’s six-month grace period, which was a policy that there would not be interest collected on provincial student loans during the six months following graduation.

In response to a student’s question about the “motive” behind the change, Cuzzetto justified his party’s decision as fiscal conservatism in practice.

“That whole program is costing us $2 billion,” said Cuzzetto. “That’s what it comes down to. It was a $15 billion dollar deficit and $345 billion debt.” 

In actuality, the Office of the Auditor General in Ontario projected that the cost of providing low-income students free postsecondary education “could grow to $2 billion annually by 2020-21,” rather than this year.

Cuzzetto acknowledged that requiring interest to accrue during the six-month grace period was a difficult choice. “Sometimes, we’re not going to like everything that we do. But sometimes we have to make tough choices,” he said. 

He argued that the PCs were making “tough choices” that he perceived the previous Ontario Liberal Party has been unwilling to make.

He also noted that the financial burden of the program would apply to people like the attendees’ family members. “Don’t you think we’re taxed too much already in Ontario?” he asked the attending audience. Most students murmured in approval in response.

Cuzzetto qualified his statement, saying that he does think taxation is necessary. “But we have to find efficiencies and run the province more efficiently,” he said.

Yousuf Farhan, Treasurer & Director Technology of the UTM Campus Conservatives, followed by asking Cuzzetto how the PC party is planning to address possible increases in tuition for students in deregulated programs not subjected to the PC’s 10 per cent cut in tuition fees, such as programs in Computer Science.

In response, Cuzzetto said that he “won’t be able to answer that,” but would be able to get him relevant information at a later point in time.

The Varsity was unable to confirm whether or not deregulated programs would be affected by the cut.

Farhan also asked if the PC party was aiming to significantly reduce the province’s fiscal deficit and eliminate Ontario’s debt by the end of its four-year term.

Cuzzetto said that the PCs were “probably not” going to eliminate the province’s debt in four years, but he is hopeful that the party could reduce the deficit, contingent on a strong economy and its continual elimination of inefficiencies.

The Breakdown: A timeline of OSAP

How the popular financial support program came to be

The Breakdown: A timeline of OSAP

The provincial government announced large-scale changes to university and college tuition frameworks and the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) on January 17.

Notably, the non-needs-based component of the Ontario Student Grant for OSAP recipients will be removed. While students receiving OSAP previously had a six-month grace period before charging interest, under the new plan, interest will be charged immediately after students end their full-time studies. However, the six-month period will remain.

Students will also have the option to opt-out of non-essential campus fees, which is sparking concern from universities, student groups, and student media.

The provincial government’s justification for these decisions was to combat an “unsustainable” system, to “reduce complexity for students,” and to prioritize lower-income students.

Here is a breakdown of OSAP — why it was created, how it has evolved, and what led up to the Progressive Conservative government’s changes.

What is OSAP?

OSAP was established under the Canadian Student Loans Program. The federal government partnered with Ontario and New Brunswick in 1999 to “harmonize” financial aid for students in those provinces.  

Currently, the program is administered by Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to assist students in paying for tuition, school supplies, required student fees, living expenses, and childcare for students with children.

Students who are Canadian citizens, permanent residents, or “protected persons” residing in Ontario can apply for OSAP.

Before 2016, one third of student aid was through non-repayable grants and two-thirds of aid was in repayable loans.

Changes under Premier Kathleen Wynne

Under the former Liberal government, OSAP received a significant redesign. Beginning in September 2017, students whose parents earn $50,000 or less were eligible for free tuition. Students who were out of high school for four years or more were eligible for free tuition if they earned $30,000 or less.

‘Free tuition’ meant that students received funding that was equal to or more than the actual tuition for a university undergraduate arts and science program, a college diploma program, or the average tuition for a high-cost university or college program such as engineering or computer science.

Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals also merged multiple OSAP grants — the 30% Off Ontario Tuition grant, the Ontario Access Grant, the Ontario Child Care Bursary, the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant, and the Ontario Distance Grants — into one single grant “to help with education costs when they are incurred.” However, some grants did remain separate, including the Indigenous Student Bursary and Bursary for Students with Disabilities.

Under this OSAP framework, students received “base” funding depending on their family income and “needs-base” funding calculated by a student’s financial need.  

In the 2018 Provincial Budget, Wynne’s government once again expanded OSAP to offer more grants and loans for married and middle-income students.

Wynne’s OSAP changes were estimated to cost taxpayers $650 million more than the former system.

Auditor General report

Last December, Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released her annual report examining a number of provincial programs, including OSAP.

In her report, Lysyk concluded that, while 24 per cent more university students and 27 per cent more college students were receiving OSAP, enrolment rose by merely one per cent for universities and two per cent for colleges.

“We concluded that a large portion of new OSAP recipients were already attending college or university — and paying for it by themselves or with loans — even before they qualified for the new aid,” Lysyk said when the report came out.

However, because the program was only one year old, Lysyk said people should be cautious before making “long-term” assumptions. “But it certainly bears watching,” Lysyk added.

The report stated that OSAP would cost nearly $2 billion per year by 2020–2021 — 50 per cent more expensive than originally planned.

ASSU announces levy increase referendum in response to rising costs

Union seeks to raise levy from $9.50 to $11 in referendum

ASSU announces levy increase referendum in response to rising costs

The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) will be holding their second referendum in recent years to increase their union fees. 

After a similar referendum in 2016 failed to pass, ASSU now hopes to raise the current fee from $9.50 to $11 per semester. The union also seeks to tie the dollar value of their levy to the Consumer Price Index, so that the levy will increase proportionally to inflation. 

In a statement to The Varsity, ASSU President Haseeb Hassaan wrote that, from 2016 onward, the union has been forced to make numerous budget cuts in the face of rising costs. In particular, “awards/scholarships, bursaries, travel and course union funding have all been slashed,” said  Hassaan. The goal of the upcoming referendum will be to return funding to the programs that have seen their budgets reduced. 

ASSU provides 62 course unions with over $180,000 in funding, in addition to $36,000 in scholarships for students, and $21,000 in grants for undergraduate research. 

Some of the services provided by ASSU include selling test packages, offering printing and faxing services, and working with the Dean’s Office to represent students’ concerns with faculty policies. 

In the past, ASSU has also organized talks with prominent speakers, such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, run exam de-stressing sessions for students, and hosted an undergraduate research conference. 

Some of the projects that ASSU currently has in the works include a new mentorship program for Arts & Science students, and “Moving on From,” a project that seeks to highlight the difficulties that students face at U of T. 

Jennifer Wang, a second-year political science student, is skeptical of these proposed increases. In an interview with The Varsity, she said, “I feel like the ASSU has never been a really big part of my life. The time I’ve been at U of T, a year and a half now, I haven’t interacted with them at all. If it was something that was more integral in our student life then I would be totally fine paying more. But because I don’t really use their services, I feel like we shouldn’t be asked to pay more.”

In response to objections like these, Hassaan said that ASSU does play an integral role in the lives of students, even if they might not realize it. 

“Every course union in the faculty gets their funding through us, which is to be used to run events, academic talks and more. Moreover, academic advocacy is a big part of who we are, things like Fall reading week was a proposal that was given to the Dean of Arts and Science by us at ASSU.”

“Some students may not see the day to day work we do to enrich their student lives but we do the best we can to make sure that students can have the best education they can with as little barriers as possible.”

The referendum will be taking place on February 13 and 14. Students will be able to vote online or in person at the Sidney Smith Commons. 

Does your phone harbour toxic chemicals?

U of T researchers find that handheld electronic devices carry flame retardant compounds

Does your phone harbour toxic chemicals?

A recent study determined that organophosphate esters (OPEs) — chemicals commonly used as flame retardants and plasticizers — could be on electronic devices.

According to Professor Miriam Diamond from U of T’s Department of Earth Sciences and her co-authors, there is a correlation between the levels of OPEs on cell phones and OPEs detected in women’s urine samples. Previous studies indicated that indoor air and dust contained a high level of OPEs.

The researchers also observed a correlation between the OPEs on women’s hands and in their urine samples, as well as in the dust found in their homes.

“Flame retardants are added to many products like electronic products, anything that heats up, anything with a plug,” said Diamond. OPEs are also used as plasticizers, which, along with flame retardants, can migrate out of an item over time. This means that OPEs can be found virtually anywhere.

The research suggests that touching different handheld devices — which are generally unclean — could transfer OPEs between them.

“If you lower [the concentration of OPEs] on your cell phone, presumably you lower what’s on your hands. You wash your hands; people seldom wash their cell phones. It’s a practical way to reduce your exposure.”

Diamond said that the next step is to investigate the toxicity of different OPEs that would affect human health. OPEs are already believed to act as endocrine disruptors.

Diamond explained that slight alterations in the thyroid of pregnant women, especially in the third trimester, could alter the brain of the fetus, which could lead to subtle neurobehavioral effects.

“A study was found showing the relationship between kids’ levels of some of these organophosphate esters and externalizing behaviour — as in kids that acted out, kids with more ADHD and a lot of activity, who don’t pick up the social cues quite as well.”

Not all OPEs behave the same. For example, one OPE that is often used in items like floor waxes is less toxic compared to other OPEs.

But Diamond explained that replacing high toxicity OPEs with low toxicity OPEs is difficult because “different chemicals which have different properties and compatibilities” are needed.

One way to reduce OPE exposure, other than cleaning your phone, is to reduce electronics use. Products in which OPEs are found are not labelled as such, but they are known to be in electronic products. And while this could be a difficult practice to adopt, Diamond explained that reducing electronic use has “good co-benefits.”

For instance, modern kitchens feature many electronic devices.

But having a kitchen filled with electronic devices is an “immediate way of how you can choose to live life with so-called convenience — but we pay a price for the convenience,” said Diamond.

While materials that contain flame retardants can be recycled and made into new products, there are consequences to that as well.

Diamond’s team is currently testing black plastic kitchen spoons that were found to contain bromine, a sign of flame retardants. This signal indicates that the material the spoons are made out of may have been previously used in computer casing or casing for other electronic devices.

What can your genes tell you about your diet?

U of T startup Nutrigenomix personalizes nutrition plans

What can your genes tell you about your diet?

Historically, dieticians have been restricted to offering ‘one-size fits all’ approaches to diet planning. But with recent advancements in genome sequencing technology, the field of nutrigenomics could revolutionize how diet plans are created. 

Nutrigenomics studies the interactions between genes, nutrients, and other bioactive food compounds at the molecular level, and how these interactions can affect individual health.

Inherited genetic variation between individuals can alter the absorption and metabolism of bioactive food compounds, as well as the different biochemical reactions that those compounds are involved with. These genetic differences contribute to a variation of individual responses to certain foods.

“We’ve always seen that some individuals respond differently from others to the same foods, beverages, nutrients and bioactives consumed,” wrote Ahmed El-Sohemy, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences, in an email. “Nutrigenomics helps us understand this variability in response so that we can predict who’s likely to benefit from a particular dietary intervention, and who might need a different approach.”

El-Sohemy is also the founder of a U of T startup called Nutrigenomix Inc., which aims to use individual genetic information through a saliva sample to offer personalized dietary recommendations to achieve positive health outcomes. 

Genetic testing through Nutrigenomix is administered exclusively through health care professionals. “Healthcare professionals can help individuals identify evidence-based tests and, equally important, they can guide consumers in interpreting their results, provide sound recommendations, and offer tips to incorporate these recommendations into their lifestyle,” wrote El-Sohemy.

One of the genes that Nutrigenomix tests for is called CYP1A2, which codes for a protein involved in breaking down caffeine. Genetic variations between individuals can differ the rates at which caffeine is digested after consumption.

Individuals with a version of the gene that is less efficient at breaking down caffeine “are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, all the way from elevated blood pressure to heart attacks, when consuming more than 200 mg of caffeine per day,” wrote El-Sohemy.

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the average Canadian consumes 210–238 milligrams of caffeine per day, or about two small cups of coffee. As such, results of this test could caution regular coffee drinkers to think twice before pouring their next cup.

Other examples of genes that are sequenced as a part of the Nutrigenomix panel include those related to vitamin C uptake relative to consumption, gluten intolerance, and high blood pressure associated with high-sodium diets.

Since its launch in 2012, Nutrigenomix has grown from a panel of seven genes to 45, with the launch of a larger panel in the near future. “We now have genetic tests focusing on general health and fitness, athletic performance, and fertility,” wrote El-Sohemy.

As with any new technology, nutrigenomic testing is not without limitations.

Nutrigenomics is far more complex than sequencing a person’s genome, and must incorporate many different ‘omics’ that exist outside of the linear sequence of a gene.

This includes epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics, all of which researchers have limited understandings of in terms of individual responses to certain bioactive food compounds and their resulting health outcomes.

There is also growing interest in the role that the microbiome, or the genetic component of a collection of primarily bacteria in the human gut, has in individual responses to certain foods. 

As researchers continue to gather information on the many dynamic interactions between genes and nutrients, and genetic sequencing continues to become faster and cheaper, we could see a shift in how diet plans are customized for individuals.

“Nutrigenomics is definitely not some fad that will pass,” wrote El-Sohemy. “It’s the new way of looking at nutrition by considering the genetic makeup of the individual, which the scientific evidence shows is important to understand before making a recommendation.”

Getting to know the Gerlai Lab’s grant recipients

Five undergraduate UTM students awarded funds to research biological mechanisms in zebrafish

Getting to know the Gerlai Lab’s grant recipients

Founded by Professor Robert T. Gerlai, a professor in the Department of Psychology and adjunct professor of Cell & Systems Biology, the Gerlai Lab at UTM aims to better understand the biological mechanisms of brain-related diseases in humans.

The Gerlai Lab studies zebrafish behaviour to find genes that affect their learning and memory, social behaviour, and any behavioural changes due to alcohol. The research goal is ultimately to better understand the biological mechanisms of zebrafish and by extension — given the “high sequence homology” between zebrafish and human genes — brain-related functions and diseases in humans.

The lab currently has 21 staff, 15 of whom are students. The lab recently awarded five UTM undergraduate students — Celine Bailluel, Zelaikha Najmi, Samuel Nguyen, Ishti Paul, and Lidia Trzuskot, all of whom are either majoring or specializing in Biology — undergraduate research grants to fund their thesis projects.

“Ever since I was younger, I was always fascinated by the human body and how it worked,” recalls Bailluel in an email to The Varsity. “I found purpose in what I was learning and applying that knowledge to my daily life gave me gratification.”

“I continue to be intrigued by how genes can affect different phenotypes and how different biological mechanism are [affected] by certain genes,” says Bailluel.

Bailluel wants to pursue a graduate degree in molecular biology, genetics, or biotechnology, fields which she believes are the key to understanding and finding possible solutions for diseases.

Like Bailluel, Najmi’s interest in biology also began at an early age.

My [interest] for Biology… stems from my need to understand everyday human life through a biological perspective,” writes Najmi in an email to The Varsity. “How an animal behaves the way it does or how one genetic strain of animal organisms compare to another identity of genetic strain are questions I find interesting.”

Najmi hopes to further pursue this interest by studying chronobiology, the study of circadian rhythms and genes involved in regulating hormones, as well as learning and memory.

[Chronobiology and learning and memory] matter because a number of mood disorders result from disruption of circadian rhythms. Research focused on these topics help further understanding and comprehension of treatment of these disorders.”

Paul is also interested in studying memory and learning through neuroscience and physiology.

“There is still a lot that we do not understand about cognitive processes like memory formation and enhancing our understanding of information retention will help us make the process more efficient,” writes Paul in an email to The Varsity. “I want to study learning and memory in vertebrate models in my post-graduate degree.”

“For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the complexity of vertebrate physiology,” explains Paul. “The idea of being able to provide an additional insight into the mechanics of our body inspired me to pursue research in biology, and it continues to be a source of motivation.”

However, all three admitted that at times their drive for research can fall short.

“My first independent research project was definitely challenging,” recalls Paul. “That is when I realized that research involves a lot of trial-and-error. It requires effort towards trying different approaches to solve issues, being creative, and being open to modifications in your project. It becomes time consuming and discouraging, at times.”

“In research it is very easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged,” agrees Bailluel. “When experiments don’t turn out how you expected or when obstacles prevent you from reaching your experimental goal, you often feel like giving up.”

“I have felt discouraged and have decided to give up multiple times during my undergraduate career,” says Najmi. “I made sure to remember, discouragement is easy to come across, but resilience and motivation are traits that can help me overcome adversity and discouragement.”

Bailleul recommends taking some time to regroup and come up with a plan to deter discouraging thoughts, as well as asking peers for help.

“Getting a new perspective on an idea and problem solving with others can help encourage you to persevere,” advises Bailluel.

“[I] actively [asked] for advice and constructive criticism from my supervisor and the PhD student in our lab,” adds Paul. “It always helps to discuss your ideas with more experienced individuals; they inspire you to continue working towards your goal despite the hurdles.”

Paul recommends that students interested in research should converse with researchers to see if research will be a good fit, as well as reach out to their professors and teaching assistants to find volunteer positions or Research Opportunity Programs in labs, a recommendation echoed by Bailluel.

Bailluel also recommends taking courses pertaining to statistical analysis or experimental design, both of which factor greatly in research.

“Live in the moment while you are conducting the research,” advises Najmi. “There are the difficult aspects of being in an undergraduate degree balancing courses and being full time in a University lab but you are capable of doing great things!”

“Overall, know you are a scientist in progress and practice makes perfect,” says Najmi.

Fighting diabetes with the South Asian Adolescent Diabetes Program

U of T researchers take a hands-on approach to improving prospects of South Asian teens at high-risk of developing diabetes

Fighting diabetes with the South Asian Adolescent Diabetes Program

According to Diabetes Canada, more than one million people in Ontario were living with diabetes in 2018, and this is estimated to increase by 30 per cent in the next 10 years. Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) accounts for 90–95 per cent of diabetes cases, with an estimated out-of-pocket medication cost for an individual ranging from $200–1,900 annually. Diabetes can also lead to other long-term health issues such as cardiovascular diseases, renal diseases, lower limb amputations, and vision loss.

In an email to The Varsity, Ananya Banerjee, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, explained that South Asian diaspora communities “face the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) compared to the general population.” Banerjee and her research team therefore implemented a South Asian Adolescent Diabetes Awareness Program (SAADAP) with the aim of targeting high-risk South Asian adolescents from ages 13–18.

Banerjee spearheaded SAADAP based on the positive findings of other related diabetes projects, including the Diabetes Prevention Program (DDP). Sponsored by the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, DDP showed that people at high risk of developing T2DM can prevent or delay the disease by losing weight through dietary changes and increasing physical activity.

Although T2DM is determined by genetic predisposition in part, it can be prevented by maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

“While genetics and individual lifestyle choices certainly play a role, there are many social factors related to migration that contribute to elevated rates of T2DM. Food insecurity, precarious employment, access to healthcare and even the neighbourhood South Asian teens live in can all influence their risk of being diagnosed with T2DM,” said Banerjee.

“The high prevalence of diabetes in South Asians is also associated with certain metabolic risk factors. Compared to Caucasian children, South Asian children have been shown to have increased plasma insulin in the setting of normal plasma glucose levels, an early sign of insulin insensitivity,” she added, explaining the significance of launching SAADAP.

Banerjee and her research team recruited 80 South Asian teens from Peel who have a family history of T2DM. The primary goals of this program were to increase knowledge about diabetes, related risks, and prevention strategies; to develop a more healthy and active lifestyle; and to help maintain healthy body weight among South Asian adolescents.

To accomplish these goals, program participants had consultations with a registered dietitian and a registered kinesiologist at the beginning and end of an eight-week program.

From the beginning, these consultations encouraged each participant to establish personalized nutrition and physical activity goals that they wanted to attain by the end of the program. These sessions also allowed researchers to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, by examining changes made by study participants on dietary and behavioural choices.

Banerjee was committed to undertaking a culturally sensitive approach when implementing this program to ensure that participants were not only able to initiate positive lifestyle changes while in the program, but also maintain those changes permanently.

The majority of activities within SAADAP were designed to be interactive and involve hands-on learning. Supermarket tours and cooking classes allowed participants to discover strategies to apply theoretical concepts to real-world situations. This kind of approach was also attractive to parents who wanted their children to learn the rationale behind making healthier choices.

Other developmental techniques, such as the Photovoice and Health Belief Model, were included in the program with the expectation that participants would be educated to recognize social problems within their community, think critically for solutions, and take action to bring a positive change.

As a result, the participants were inspired to look beyond their own behaviours and take steps to promote diabetes prevention strategies within their community.

Banerjee and her team are now planning to take this further by developing and pilot testing a peer-led SAADAP for at-risk adolescents in the Peel region on the recommendation of study participants.

“This will be a novel, cost-effective and sustainable approach to community-based diabetes prevention in South Asian adolescents,” said Banerjee.

Treating brain inflammation starts from the gut

Immune cells from the gut found to suppress brain inflammation

Treating brain inflammation starts from the gut

Researchers at U of T have found that immune cells from the intestine can be used to reduce brain inflammation in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS). When outside of the gut, these IgA-producing plasma cells attenuate disease symptoms within the central nervous system (CNS). IgA is an antibody commonly found in mucous membranes.

MS results in inflammatory lesions throughout the CNS, including the brain and spinal cord, disturb the transmission of electrical signals through nerves. The consequent symptoms vary from person to person, but often include impaired sensation, cognition, and coordination.

Studies have focused on preventing the formation of new inflammatory lesions. This involves depleting or suppressing the activity of immunoreactive plasma cells. These plasma cells originate as B cells but differentiate in response to the presence of an antigen, releasing antibodies that trigger the immune response and simultaneous inflammation.

Previous trials have examined the effects of suppressing B cells, as opposed to plasma cells. The depletion of B cells has been shown to prevent the formation of inflammatory CNS lesions. Contrarily, the neutralization of plasma cells has been shown to exacerbate the MS symptoms.

Due to these opposing results, U of T researchers, led by immunology professor Jennifer Gommerman, sought to understand the source and function of plasma cells in the CNS during the inflammatory response. Specifically, they examined IgA-producing plasma cells, due to the unexpected discovery that these cells reside in the brain and spinal cord during an MS-like attack.

The researchers found that, in the absence of plasma cells, inflammatory symptoms of an MS-like disease state in a mouse model were more severe. Additionally, IgA-producing plasma cells were directly responsible for suppressing neuroinflammation.

To see if these results extended to human MS patients, they also tested the IgA content within the gut — the region of the body containing the largest reservoir of IgA-producing cells. They saw that relapsing MS patients had significantly less IgA gut bacteria than patients who were in remission. This indicated a potential migration of IgA cells out of the gut, precipitating the inflammatory relapse in MS.

The results of the study suggest not only that gut-derived IgA plasma cells can access the inflamed CNS in MS, but also that they play an important role in regulating the tissue inflammatory response. This demonstrates the necessity of considering the gut-brain axis when treating the pathology of inflammatory disease, as well as the therapeutic potential of mobilizing immunosuppressive IgA-producing cells from the gut to the CNS.

In the future, Gommerman plans to further examine which microbes in the gut promote the accumulation of resident reactive IgA plasma cells in the CNS. With her team, she hopes to design therapies that will promote the accumulation of these cells in nervous tissue.

“The problem with treating MS is that it is hard to get therapies into the CNS,” said Gommerman. “However, IgA plasma cells migrate to the CNS on their own. Thus, mobilizing these cells to enter the CNS may represent a novel strategy for quieting inflammation in the CNS.”