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This year in research at McGill

McGill researchers treat autism in mice]
November 2012
On November 21, McGill researchers released a paper in Nature describing their success in inducing and reversing autism symptoms in mice, marking one of the first real steps toward treating autism. Researchers knocked out a specific gene in mice that was involved in regulating the production of certain groups of proteins. Without this gene, they found an increase in production of these proteins, and the exhibition of autistic symptoms in mice. Using drugs that blocked protein production, researchers were able to successfully prevent protein overproduction, and reversed autism symptoms in these lab mice. However, like many other animal models of disease, it is not certain that this mechanism causes autism in humans. Additionally, autism may not always be caused by genetic mutation, and for such cases, further studies are required to gain useful insights and treatments. Still, this study shows that autism may be reversible, which could give hope to the millions of people worldwide affected by this disorder.

Zoë Knowles

October 2012
One of the most heated health issues at McGill this year revolved around the controversial asbestos study conducted by retired McGill professor John Corbett McDonald. On October 18, 2012, McGill cleared McDonald of any misconduct – which included allegedly working with the asbestos industry and consequently fabricating his study’s research about asbestos’ health concerns. But his innocence is still questioned. The controversy around this study affected the way that McGill viewed its education and research process. We, as students, should always be critical of what we learn and not assume that professors are infallible. This controversy has sparked debates over reliability, accountability, and the way that studies should be conducted at McGill. McDonald deemed certain types of asbestos “innocuous,” although asbestos is linked to cancer. As a result, asbestos industries have cited McDonald’s flawed study to promote asbestos usage. However, McGill investigators found “no evidence of scientific misconduct,” on MacDonald’s part, according to the CBC.

Zoë Knowles

HPV Study
January 2013
In January 2013, McGill launched a study called Carrageenan-gel Against Transmission of Cervical human papillomavirus (HPV) infection (CATCH) to evaluate a new method of HPV prevention. A seaweed extract, carrageenan, has been identified as an inhibitor of HPV infections by the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. The CATCH study involves the application of a Carrageenan in gel-form as a personal lubricant before sexual intercourse, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. The plan is to recruit 465 women, who are sexually active and university-aged, to apply the gel before sex. Half of these women will be given the Carrageenan gel, and the other half will be given a placebo. This study will show both the effectiveness of the Carrageenan gel in preventing HPV and in treating existing infections. While a vaccine preventing HPV was released in the market a few years ago, it does not prevent all strains of HPV, which in turn can cause cancers in the throat, tongue, penis, vagina, vulva, anus, and cervix. If successful, the study will revolutionize the treatment of HPV, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), making this a very important study. However, the problem with the study is that is seems to be geared only towards cisgendered women, presumably those who are heterosexual. However, HPV can be contracted by any sexually active individual, including men, and the testing of this drug should be open to individuals of all genders and sexual orientations.

Sarah Fortin

Promising multiple sclerosis treatment
March 2013
Successful clinical trials using bone marrow transplantation (BMT) were carried out in a small group of patient with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Though a highly risky from of treatment, BMT has been found to be effective in preventing relapse in patients with MS. This study was based on immunological research at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) and the Université de Montréal. The principle investigator of the study was Amit Bar-Or, a neurologist and researcher at the MNI and director of the Experimental Therapeutics program – which, according to Bar-Or, is “a program that grew from [their] interest in trying to study the biology of a human condition by studying people with the human condition.” In particular, with a disease like MS where no real animal model exists, researchers are finding it more effective to study the biology of what is actually changing in the human with the illness, by assessing early phase clinical trials such as this BMT study in humans.

Diana Kwon

Nanoparticles for brain disorders
March 2013
Today, the number of Canadians affected by brain tumours and disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, are on the rise. One of the main issues in terms of treatment for these diseases is that less than half of the administered dose of medicine contained in current drugs actually reaches the brain. Sebastien Boridy, a Pharmacology graduate student at McGill, is currently looking into developing the technology to administer nanoparticles into the brain. Nanoparticles provide a uniquely effective way of delivering drugs to the brain because of their specificity and improved penetration into target areas in the organ. These drugs hold huge potential for the future treatment of brain disorders.

Diana Kwon

Understanding the cultural impacts of HIV/AIDS in the Middle East
March 2013
HIV/AIDS is a global crisis – over 34 million people are estimated to have contracted with HIV in 2011. This is a particularly large issue in the Middle East, due to the fact that HIV-related topics are a cultural taboo in this region, which leads to very few efforts in research, and a lessened chance of affected individuals reaching out for help. Saoussan Askar, a graduate student in Sociology at McGill, is studying how HIV and AIDS is conceptualized and discussed in the Middle East by conducting a discourse analysis of media outlets in these areas. Thus far, Askar has found little or no mention of safe sex or treatment of HIV, and an exclusion of the questions of why and how transmission occurs. The results have pointed to the need to address certain cultural taboos related to HIV in the Middle East in order to be able to provide better prevention and treatment measures.

—Diana Kwon

The neurochemistry of music
March 2013
Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of Psychology at McGill, aided by his post-graduate research fellow, Dr. Mona Lisa Chanda, has discovered multiple benefits of playing and listening to music. The effects of the latter on the reduction of pre-surgery anxiety were found to be greater than the usual prescribed pre-operation medication. Music was found to strengthen the immune system by increasing the number of important mucosal antibodies and natural killer cells. The research also showed that music plays a role in mood management and in human social bonding. On the topic of further research, the authors will examine probable differences between playing and listening to music, and found a correlation between oxytocin – the ‘love drug’ – group affiliation, and music, as well as the possible similarities in chemical pathways between musical pleasure and other forms of pleasure, such as sex and food.

Julie Prud’homme

University’s attempt at energy reduction
March 2013
McGill has completed an array of projects aimed at decreasing its energy consumption and improving sustainability. McGill partnered with the Energy Management Group to make the University’s energy “more visible and easier to track.” The company has installed 400 real-time energy metres in seventy buildings on campus. The results from these metres can be accessed by anybody online at Projected energy savings from recent projects that involve “heat recovery from a data centre, a ventilation upgrade in a chemistry building, or upgrades to one of the library buildings, range from $100,000 to $300,000 for each project,” accoding to the group. McGill has succeeded in lowering its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent since 2002. While it may seem productive for McGill to partner with an outside organization to help with energy needs, it would be worth looking at its own resources – staff, graduate, and post-graduate students – for help on these issues. One of the means through which McGill is doing so is by undertaking an applied student research project dubbed the “McGill Energy Project.” This project has allowed undergraduate students to build an energy systems map for McGill. It has also given them the opportunity to develop methods to forecast the university’s energy demand and optimize steam and chilled water origination. Involving undergrads is a good step on the university’s behalf, but careful consideration of background and experience should be taken before assigning these students to bigger projects.

Ralph Haddad