Weeding out the high drivers

Procedures surrounding roadside cannabis testing is hazy, but new tech developments hold promise

Weeding out the high drivers

When the Cannabis Act comes into effect on October 17, it brings with it a slew of changes to laws regarding possession, distribution, and the selling of cannabis in Canada. 

Some laws, however, will not be changing. Driving under the influence of cannabis is and will remain illegal after October 17, and rightfully so: several statistics show that driving under the influence of cannabis significantly increases the risk of vehicle crashes, especially fatal ones.

Driving high is not uncommon either. A Health Canada survey from 2017 reported that 39 per cent of individuals who use cannabis had driven a vehicle two hours after smoking marijuana. 

This summer, Parliament passed Bill C-45, which clarified the legal amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the molecule responsible for getting you high — allowed in the blood while driving. Having two to five nanograms of THC per millilitre of blood constitutes a summary offence. Having more than five nanograms could get you jail time. Still, the procedure for determining drug impairment on the road remains hazy.

Current testing procedures

Law enforcement in Canada currently monitors drug impairment on the road in the same way it does alcohol. If a police officer suspects that you are driving impaired — whether from observing abnormal driving behaviour or simply smelling drugs or alcohol on you during a traffic stop — they can have you take a Standard Field Sobriety Test (SFST). This test, much like an acrobatics audition, will test your balance and coordination. 

You might also undergo a drug recognition evaluation (DRE). Here, if alcohol impairment is suspected, a breathalyzer is used. If not, you can be physically examined for evidence of drug use like having your pupil size measured. Lastly, a toxicological sample, like urine, saliva, or blood, is sent to a forensic lab for examination.

One of the most glaring differences between testing for alcohol impairment versus cannabis impairment is that the former is rapid — alcohol impairment can be determined on the roadside — but impairment by any other drug, including cannabis, is determined after the toxicological sample has been examined. 

The absence of a rapid roadside drug test is concerning, considering the prevalence of drug-related car crashes and the subjectivity of the SFST and DRE. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in 2014, there were twice as many fatal vehicle crashes involving drugs than crashes involving alcohol. Cannabis accounted for 45 per cent of all these drug cases. 

Take your breath away

Several companies are developing cannabis breathalyzer technology, including SannTek, which is based in Kitchener.

SannTek’s breathalyzer is currently being marketed to industries in which drug impairment poses a safety issue, like mining, transportation, and construction, with hopes that law enforcement will follow. Noah Debrincat, CEO and co-founder of SannTek, wrote that the advantage of using breath as a testing medium is that it can only measure recent drug use.

“The advantage… is that it actually correlates to when a user would experience the acute impairing effects of cannabis. Contrast this with the use of something like urine tests, where a person could use recreational cannabis safely on Saturday night, and on Monday would fail a urine test requested by an employer, even though they are not impaired,” wrote Debrincat.

Vivienne Luk, an assistant professor at UTM and forensic toxicologist, says that cannabis breathalyzers have limitations. “There is limited research on the relationship between THC concentration in the breath and its relation with other bodily fluids, like blood,” wrote Luk.

Luk, who regularly testifies in court as an expert witness, says that the functionality of drug screening devices is often questioned in court. “Would smoking, using breath mints, or chewing gum interfere with the functionality of the device? These are questions that are often asked in court cases involving the alcohol screening devices, so I am certain THC ‘breathalyzers’ will also be subjected to similar questioning.”

Saliva sensors have been recently approved by the federal government for roadside cannabis testing, and Toronto police have already completed pilot programs with them. The saliva sensors have similar limitations to breathalyzers: drug concentrations in your saliva can be a diluted representation of what is actually in your blood, potentially leading to underestimations and false negatives.

Other bodily fluids

If breath and saliva are potentially out, what bodily fluid is left? U of T professor Andreas Mandelis from the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering says that interstitial fluid is the answer. 

Mandelis, whose lab is developing a non-invasive cannabis sensor, says interstitial fluid, the fluid surrounding all the cells in your body, carries an accurate ‘memory’ of substances that are in your blood. For THC, it only takes several minutes after it reaches your bloodstream for it to reach the interstitial fluid.

Mandelis and his team measure interstitial fluid THC levels using technology based on infrared radiation. To understand how this works, bear with me for a quick refresher on high school physics.

All materials and objects absorb and emit infrared radiation. This includes our own bodies: humans are constantly emitting infrared radiation, which, unlike light, is invisible to the naked eye. Instead, it is perceived as heat. 

“It’s like in the movie Predator, where the predator couldn’t see in the visible light range but could see in the infrared range,” said Mandelis. “That’s why Arnold Schwarzenegger put mud on his face and body so that he would not be detected… It’s exactly those thermal photons we are looking at.”

What is not explained in Predator is that sometimes the wavelength in which a material — or even a molecule — emits radiation is distinct enough that it can be used to identify that material or molecule. “At that wavelength, at that peak, that only belongs to one molecule,” said Mandelis. This means that if the titular antagonist from Predator had a more sophisticated sensor, it could have identified Schwarzenegger as Schwarzenegger, not just as ‘human.’ 

Thankfully, Mandelis does have a more sophisticated sensor. In order to obtain that specific signature from THC, Mandelis’ sensor directs a laser at your fingertip. Once the laser penetrates to the interstitial fluid — just several microns below the surface of your skin — any THC molecules present will absorb the laser light and re-emit it as infrared radiation at a frequency that is specific to THC. 

“Once the heat is emitted, I have an infrared sensor that can monitor that,” said Mandelis.

Here lies another benefit of testing interstitial fluid to monitor THC concentrations: it is non-invasive. In other words, you can measure the level of THC in your body without actually pricking, poking, or taking any sort of tissue or fluid sample.

Moving forward

Be it a breathalyzer, saliva sensor, or infrared detector, we may have some type of roadside cannabis sensor soon. While technological advancement is important, we cannot forget the human and physiological factors. Luk explains that the levels of THC in your body may be influenced by the user profile. Whether you are an occasional or chronic smoker and whether you smoke or ingest cannabis can influence how much THC ends up in blood, how quickly, and for how long.

For now, Luk suggests that we do not abandon our current roadside methods. “It is important to keep in mind that these devices are designed for screening purposes only, meaning a positive result is a tentative finding and confirmation with a more accurate technique is required.”

Explainer: Open Access in science

What the open access movement means for Canada and beyond

Explainer: Open Access in science

The European Union recently proposed Plan S, which aims to make all government-funded research open access (OA) and was accepted by 11 prominent funding agencies across Europe.

This initiative would deter researchers from publishing in traditional-style journals, such as Nature and Science, and attempts to circumvent issues perpetuated by paywalls so that information is more readily available to the public.

Open access refers to any scholarly research that is free, easily accessible, and often available online.

A brief history

The OA movement has been around since physicists and computer scientists began archiving data online, as early as the 1970s.

This way of using the internet to store and organize data gained immense popularity among librarians worldwide.

As the internet gained momentum, subscription costs for traditional journals started to rise and, consequently, neither public nor academic institutions could afford to access much of the research that was available. This resulted in a problem now known as ‘serials crisis.’

As a result, publishers were forced to drastically lower prices and provide grants to under-financed institutions and less economically stable countries.

Since then, the movement for OA publications has continued to grow, and has garnered both support and disdain globally. 


OA publishing is widely classified into three main types: Gold OA, Green OA, and Hybrid OA.

Gold OA articles are immediately available online after publishing, but researchers must foot the costs of processing the article, including editing and peer review.

Doing so eliminates subscriptions and subsequent paywalls, but article processing charges (APCs) could present a large financial barrier to already underfunded research projects.

Green OAs have no APCs and are published in traditional journals, but are ‘self-archived’ in repositories, where they become available after an embargo period set by the publisher. The repository can be institutional or external and is often subject-based, which allows the general public to navigate a vast body of research more easily.

Hybrid OAs are the most prevalent and are offered by publishers that function as traditional journals.

Hybrid OAs are seen as a transitionary model that allows the copyright to stay with the author, giving them the right to publish the final version of the article without an embargo period.

Open access in Canada

Within Canada, there are three major federal granting agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The three have come together and adopted a tri-agency OA policy that aims to expand the audience for the research they fund.

Canada has set an international precedent with this action and is working toward creating a more accessible scientific community.

Open access at U of T

The University of Toronto has adopted a similar policy and has readily available resources to help researchers make their findings OA. The initiatives introduced include TSpace, Open Access Week, Digital Special Collections, and Journal Production Services. University of Toronto Press also has four OA journals and continues to expand its collection.

Beyond Canada

As with any new movement in science, there are many detractors from the OA movement. In an industry worth more than $25 billion, publishing companies see OA as cutting a hole in their pockets.

The reputation of journals and the ‘publish or peril’ mentality have contributed to a robust industry, and many researchers view publishing in prestigious journals as the only way to further their careers.

The reputation that journals, such as Nature, carry in the scientific community make their demise seem unlikely.

Regardless of type, OA has garnered immense support worldwide. For government-funded research, it is a way of giving taxpayers a return on their investment. The movement could help combat misinformation, provide data for mining and commercial purposes, and help shape public policy.

The increased exposure associated with publicly available research also helps scientists in underfunded institutions gain access to new information. This results in a higher citation rate, which  is a key measure of an article’s value.

Despite protests, the OA movement is revolutionizing how research is shared to the public and among fellow researchers.

Science Literacy Week returns for its fifth consecutive year

This year’s theme is “A Space Odyssey”

Science Literacy Week returns for its fifth consecutive year

Science Literacy Week is returning this year for its fifth anniversary and will take place from Monday, September 17 to Sunday, September 23. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Council has partnered with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to kick off this year’s celebration of science and to highlight space exploration. CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques and his colleagues are set to launch on the International Space Station this December.

“More than anything this year I want people to see Science Literacy Week as a chance to get out and experience science in a new light,” wrote Science Literacy Week Founder and U of T alum Jesse Hildebrand. “Not as lectures or fact and figures to be memorized, but as an entrancing way of looking at the world.”

Platforms such as Science Literacy Week provide the opportunity for Canadians, experts and non-experts alike, to delve into science through a variety of creative outlets. The nationwide celebration appeals to a wide variety of subject interests within science, suitable for all ages.

Science Literacy Week was founded by Hildebrand with the goal of uniting science enthusiasts from across Canada to spread awareness about scientific breakthroughs, history, and literature through organized events.

Last year, there were over 800 events that occurred in 100 cities across Canada. Although this year will focus on astronomical activities, there will be hundreds of other events being offered that will make you feel grounded.

From making slime, understanding robotics, learning how to code, public talks, and science themed scavenger hunts, Science Literacy Week has got it all.

“Whether it’s peering into a microscope to see a thousand little creatures, hearing a talk that explains things in a way that finally makes sense or staring at the stars and marvelling at the immensity of the Cosmos, Science Literacy Week has something to inspire absolutely everyone with the magic and wonder of science,” wrote Hildebrand.

Here are some of this year’s notable events around U of T:

Makerspace Display

Come to the UTSC Library to learn about the technologies used to make objects and make your own space-themed button.

Date: Monday, September 17

Time: 10:00 am to 12:00 pm

Location: UTSC Library, 1265 Military Trail

Admission: Free

Explore the Universe in the ROM’s Travelling Planetarium

Staff from the Royal Ontario Museum will be at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Library to display a planetarium in 30-minute sessions.

Date: Monday, September 17

Time: 12:00–5:00 pm

Location: OISE Library, 252 Bloor Street West

Admission: Free

Interactive Demos with the J. Tuzo Wilson Club

The J. Tuzo Wilson Geology Club will be demonstrating minerals under the microscope, how meteorites are tested, and more.

Date: Monday, September 17 to Friday, September 21

Time: 1:00–3:00 pm

Location: UTM Library, 1867 Inner Circle Road

Admission: Free

Interactive Geologic Time with Fossil Samples

UTM PhD student Katie Maloney will give insight into a geologist’s work and display some of UTM’s fossil collection. Maloney will also share how fossils are preserved and analyzed.

Date: Wednesday, September 19

Time: 12:00–1:00 pm

Location: Davis Building, 1867 Inner Circle Road, Room 2062

Admission: Free

From Euclid to Einstein: Milestones in the History of Science

This event is a self-guided tour of over 30 iconic scientific works of literature that have shaped the way science has evolved over the centuries. Works will include a Latin manuscript of Euclid’s Elements, dating back to the fourteenth century, and Copernicus’ work on planetary motion from the sixteenth century.

Date: Thursday, September 20

Time: 4:00–7:00 pm

Location: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, 120 St. George Street

Admission: Free


Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

U of T hopes to advance robotics research

Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

Five new faculty members were appointed to U of T’s Computer Science departments for the 2018–2019 academic year, as the university moves to increase its commitment to computer science research, particularly in robotics.

The researchers come from a variety of backgrounds and have diverse research interests that encompass fields like robotics, machine learning, human-robot interaction, and parallel algorithms.

Dr. Animesh Garg, one of the new Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM, was previously a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

In an email interview with The Varsity, Garg wrote that he chose to accept a position at U of T in part because of collaborations with industry leaders such as Google, NVIDIA, and Uber.

“The opportunity to work in such a dynamic environment composed of academic leaders, industrial partners and most of all inspiring students made for a great combination for a young academic such as myself to establish a thriving research lab,” continued Garg.

His research focuses on the fields of generalizable autonomy for robotics and “involves an integration of perception, machine learning and control in the real world.”

Dr. Maryam Mehri Dehnavi, a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science hailing from Rutgers University, wrote in an email to The Varsity that she was drawn to U of T because of its stellar academic environment and the city.

Dehnavi also pointed to the department’s focus beyond “just current trendy areas” and its investment in long-term research.

“We aim to significantly improve the performance of large-scale data-intensive problems on parallel and cloud computing platforms by building high-performance frameworks,: said Dehnavi on her research. “To build these frameworks we formulate scalable mathematical methods and develop domain-specific compilers and programming languages.”

Dr. Joseph Jay Williams is also a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science, previously from the National University of Singapore.

In an interview with The Varsity, he said that he is excited to join U of T due to the unique position he was offered in doing research that “applies computer science techniques to educational research.” In particular, Williams is excited to work on cross-disciplinary collaborations, such as with the Department of Psychology and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Williams’ research focuses on creating “intelligent self-improving systems that conduct dynamic experiments to discover how to optimize and personalize technology, helping people learn new concepts and change habitual behavior.”

In the future, Williams hopes to conduct randomized A/B experiments with practical applications in health and education.

Dr. Florian Shkurti will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM coming from McGill University. Shkurti was drawn to U of T due to its “longstanding tradition of excellence” in areas like robotics, machine learning, computer vision, and various engineering subfields.

One of Shkurti’s research projects works on robot control systems that enable robots to work alongside scientists to explore underwater environments.

“In the future, I am planning to dedicate my research efforts to creating algorithms that learn useful abstractions and representations from large sources of unsupervised visual data,” said Shkurti.

Dr. Jessica Burgner-Kahrs from Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany will join the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM as an Associate Professor.

According to Burgner-Kahrs, her research interests are in robotics, particularly in small-scale continuum robotics and human-robot interactions. She will be joining the faculty in Spring 2019.

Through its appointment of research-focused faculty, the university hopes to expand its research frontiers in computer science beyond traditional areas.

50 years of A Space Odyssey

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

50 years of <i>A Space Odyssey</i>

Fifty years ago, the landmark science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (A Space Odyssey) dazzled audiences worldwide.

The film was a collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke, who had set out to create the first ‘serious’ science fiction film. Up until that point, science fiction had not been considered a legitimate genre.

Over the course of the year, the film community has been celebrating A Space Odyssey’s 50th anniversary, including the premiere of a special 70mm original print of the film at the Cannes Film Festival.

According to the festival’s press release, “For the first time since the original release, this 70mm print was struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative. This is a true photochemical film recreation. There are no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits. The original version will be presented to recreate the cinematic event audiences experienced 50 years ago.”

Recently, this particular print travelled through North America; I viewed it on June 9 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. I have always been of the opinion that the true way to view a film is on the big screen how the filmmaker originally intended.

True to A Space Odyssey’s quality, the best way to enjoy the film is to see it exactly how it was delivered in 1968. Everything in the film was louder, clearer, and sharper. HAL’s ‘eye’ is all the more frightening, and the Star Gate sequence is an auditory and visual ride.

With a screenplay co-written by Clarke and Kubrick and based on Clarke’s novel of the same name,  the film is a grand, sweeping piece of cinema that stretches from the dawn of mankind to first contact with extraterrestrial life.

Stanley Kubrick was a prolific filmmaker and known as a genius in the art of movie-making. During the development of his films he would completely immerse himself in the subject, with the aim of learning as much as possible, so the film would feel completely authentic.

A Space Odyssey was no different; he and Clarke would have long discussions on science, space, and physics, and solicited feedback from luminaries such as Carl Sagan. Kubrick had a ferocious, almost insatiable, thirst for knowledge that is evident in every frame of his films.

Kubrick and Clarke have created a film that still resonates with audiences today. It is a film so utterly mysterious and brilliant that critics and fans continue to discuss what it all means. To this day, A Space Odyssey is considered one of the finest films in the science fiction genre ever made.

The film’s sets were impeccably created, with the giant centrifuge spaceship where the crew lived as the showpiece. Kubrick’s team created a Ferris wheel-like design to simulate gravity in the scene where one of the astronauts jogs around the ship. A Space Odyssey is filled with other innovative design elements like the climatic final sequence through the Star Gate and the heavy emphasis on realism for a science fiction film.

A Space Odyssey is a visual masterpiece and an example of how well practical effects and creative ingenuity can work together to achieve a singular vision. It is a testament to the film’s quality and allure that, despite being 50 years old, it could pass for a 2018 release.

With the 50th anniversary of the film, it’s a good time to go back and re-watch a classic or see it for the first time. To enhance your enjoyment of the film, I recommend reading Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson. It chronicles the before, production, and after of the film, with brilliant tidbits and details about Kubrick and Clarke’s process of bringing the film to print.

2001: A Space Odyssey’s release was a true turning point for science fiction films. The film changed the way audiences perceive the science fiction genre and its artistic quality.

The film’s stature has risen since its initial release 50 years ago and I predict that it will continue to charm audiences 50 years from now.

The politics opposing the cap and trade plan are bad science

Ford’s climate change initiatives are damaging at best

The politics opposing the cap and trade plan are bad science

“We are getting Ontario out of the carbon tax business.”

One of Premier Doug Ford’s first moves was to scrap the cap and trade plan in Ontario and challenge the federal government. The cap and trade program rewards businesses and corporations for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to below the provincial government’s set threshold.

Now, the Ford government promises to eliminate the carbon tax as early as next month.

Environment and Climate Change Canada also scaled back its carbon tax plan, and Ford has used it as a political tool to divide Ontario from the federal government.

Starting in 2019, however, the federal government will tax Ontario companies $20 for every tonne of greenhouse gas emitted and up to $50 per tonne in 2022.

According to Matthew Hoffman, U of T political science professor, “The federal government will collect the carbon tax for the province and then funnel the tax back into the province” to aid companies and individuals with higher costs of living. However, the main issue with the federal government’s design is how exactly that will be achieved.

The carbon tax is meant to be revenue neutral, contrary to Ford’s claim that the tax is a business.

Climate change should be of greater concern to Ontarians, and scaling back the cap and trade program and rewarding corporations that pollute heavily should not be endorsed.

The Liberals had introduced the cap and trade system to Ontario, setting a long-term goal to reduce emissions by 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, as well as several interim objectives.

With Ontario under cap and trade, over three-quarters of Canadians would live in a province with some form of carbon pricing. However, Ford is erasing this progress.

Incidents like the Ford government’s scrapping of cap and trade are microcosms of a growing issue where climate change has become one of the most polarizing issues in Canadian politics.

Climate change is a unique issue in Canadian, American, and Australian politics, says Hoffmann, because in most places in the rest of world, it is not a partisan issue.

Unlike the rest of the world, where the political debate is about what should be done to stop climate change, the debate in Canadian politics is whether anything should be done at all, he says.

Despite this divide, the Progressive Conservatives have promised to unveil a climate change plan in the upcoming months.

Hoffmann believes that the Ford government’s promise to come up with an alternative climate change plan shows that Ontarians are concerned about climate change. In fact, voters have already been impacted by climate change. According to Ontario’s Climate Change Strategy, the 2013 ice storm in Southern Ontario inflicted approximately $1 billion in damages.

According to a 2011 report by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, climate change could cost Canadians up to $91 billion by 2050.

“Ontario voters also expect that the government should have a climate plan,” says Hoffman. “You don’t see massive protests in Ontario that are against the environment.”

The growing story is whether Justin Trudeau’s federal government will impose a carbon tax on the Ontario government if the Ford government loses the battle.

This can already be seen in the Trudeau government’s recent action to ‘soften’ the carbon tax in order to keep businesses competitive in Canada. What will become of Ontario and Canada’s greenhouse emission initiatives may be determined by next year’s elections.

If the Liberals choose to impose the carbon tax on Ontario, it could set off a political battle that may not end anytime soon.

Study shows angelfish can discriminate quantities

Scientists develop a novel method to study how fish ‘count’ when foraging

Study shows angelfish can discriminate quantities

The ability to discriminate between different quantities is not a skill unique to humans. Different animals, including fish, may possess the ability to count.

UTM Professor Robert Gerlai of the Department of Psychology contributed to a study that examines whether and, if so, how Pterophyllum scalare, otherwise known as angelfish, discriminate quantities while foraging.

Scientific literature on quantity discrimination in a foraging context has predominantly focused on mammals and birds. Several of these studies have shown that when animals are tested in laboratory conditions, they are sensitive to quantitative differences and often choose larger sets of food items over smaller sets.

Previous studies have shown that fish have the ability to distinguish between quantities of conspecifics, or members of their species. Angelfish are a social species, so there is an evolutionary benefit to being able to distinguish between sizes of groups. Choosing the larger group of fish, or shoal, offers better protection and reduces the risk of predation.

There is a literature gap in quantity discrimination experiments in fish with food as the discriminant. Fish, especially those that live in shoals, are often negatively affected when tested in complete isolation in a laboratory setting. In addition to the frightening test environment, other complications like uneven odour cues have prevented scientists from focusing on quantity discrimination in foraging contexts in fish.

Gerlai and his colleagues devised a novel methodology that allowed for angelfish to be tested individually while in a shoal, and therefore mitigated stress on the fish. Their new procedure also reduced other variables. For example, by presenting the stimuli outside of the aquarium, chemical and olfactory cues were excluded. This novel setup opens the way for developing more methods to accurately test numerical abilities in fish.

When quantity discrimination in a foraging context is tested in animals, often a binary choice test is given. This is a test in which two options are given to the animal and the choice the animal makes is observed. In the context of fish, a picture of a single item of food is shown on one side of the tank. On the opposite side of the tank, a picture of multiple items of food is shown. The side in which the fish spends the longest amount of time can be taken as the choice that animal has made.

There are two predominant theories that are said to explain how animals have the ability to count. The first is called the object file system, which allows animals to differentiate based on the number of elements, such as food items, in different groups — it is therefore thought to be more precise. The object file system of discrimination is said to be limited to small number of food items, with a maximum of four elements.

The second theory, known as the approximate number discrimination system, is used when larger sets of elements are presented. The approximate number discrimination system depends on ratios, not the absolute numerical differences between the number of elements compared.

In this study, Gerlai and his colleagues found a significant increase in accuracy in choosing the larger number of food items as the numerical ratio between the contrasting sets of food items increased. Overall, their results point to evidence that activation of the approximate number system was being used to discriminate.

Fish may not be solving complex math problems any time soon, but studying decision-making in this species when a binary choice test is given in a foraging context may help understand more complex behaviours.

Scientists are still left with several questions about the extent to which quantity discrimination in a foraging context is learned and if it is a result of evolutionary fine-tuning of neural circuitry.

RNA silencing technology could be the future of medicine

Onpattro has Canadian roots and is the first FDA-approved RNAi treatment

RNA silencing technology could be the future of medicine

In August, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals released patisiran, trade name ONPATTRO, an injectable drug that treats hereditary transthyretin (ATTR) amyloidosis.

While this may seem like just another experimental drug release among tens and hundreds each year, this one is particularly notable: it’s the first RNA interference (RNAi) therapy approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

RNAi silences specific messenger RNAs (mRNA), transcribed from DNA, before they have a chance to be used for protein synthesis. As such, it can be used to prevent the translation of otherwise defective proteins.

Hereditary ATTR amyloidosis causes a buildup of a protein known as amyloid in the nervous system. When amyloid accumulates, it can cause debilitating damage to the nervous system and more serious cases can result in death.

The technology for patisiran was first developed in the laboratory of University of British Columbia (UBC) Professor Pieter Cullis in collaboration with UBC Professor Marco Ciufolini.

Patients in trials reported significant improvements in motor skills, reflexes, and other essential functions of the nervous system after 18 months of treatment.

Many therapies have sought to target DNA and RNA as a permanent treatment to various diseases and conditions, although this becomes more complicated, since there are several categories of RNA. It would be difficult to cast a net that is wide enough to target genetic abnormalities, but selective enough to not destroy pathways necessary for proper functioning.

This is where RNAi therapy comes in.

On their way to being translated into proteins, an enzyme known as Dicer typically intercepts sections of RNA and cuts them in two; one half is degraded immediately, while the other half is shuffled into a complex called the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC).

But during RNAi, specific messenger RNAs are silenced after DNA has been transcribed to RNA. Dicer selectively targets certain pieces of RNA. The RISC, now containing this small piece of RNA, can use it as a template to target and degrade similar pieces of RNA, which allows silencing of specific RNA sections throughout a cell — sometimes even an organism as a whole — and inhibits the production of disease-causing proteins.

RNAi technology is useful for pinpointing a gene’s function. In fact, U of T Professor Jason Moffat’s lab is working on identifying genes in human cancer cell lines using RNAi, among other methods. U of T Professor Andrew Fraser uses RNAi to ‘turn off’ genes in worms to identify potential mutations in the human genetic code.

RNAi can be manipulated for the treatment of genetic and hereditary diseases and, with the correct specificity, could revolutionize medicine.