Research highlights from 2012-2013

Seeking to answer questions about how birds got their wings, Hans Larsson (Redpath Museum) and former graduate student Alexander Dececchi performed regression analyses on two datasets of fossil measurement. They found that the ratio of limb length to body size underwent a dramatic change when dinosaurs transitioned into birds 150 million years ago. These findings shed important light on how birds came to be such a successful class of land vertebrates – the most diverse class existent on Earth today. 

Audrey Moores (Chemistry) and doctoral student Reuben Hudson discovered a way to make hydrogenation – an important industrial reaction for pharmaceutical and petrochemical synthesis – less expensive and more environmentally friendly. Hydrogenation typically requires heavy metals such as platinum or palladium as catalysts. By using amiphilic polymers to rust-proof less toxic iron catalysts, Moores, Hudson and colleagues from partner institution RIKEN (the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, Wako, Japan) demonstrated iron’s viability in an environmentally-friendly solvent: water. The study authors hope to develop the catalyst for other uses and to pave the way for more sustainable industrial processes overall.

Prof. Nathalie Tufenkji (left) with postdoctoral fellow Ché O’May (Photo by Owen Egan)Two studies by Nathalie Tufenkji (Chemical Engineering) uncovered new information on how cranberries help fight bacterial illnesses such as urinary tract infections. Analyzing the effect of cranberry powder on bacteria behaviour on agar plates, Tufenkji discovered that cranberries not only inhibit bacterial movement but also reduce the bacteria's production of infectious enzymes. These findings hold potential for using cranberry derivatives to create alternatives to antibiotics and to prevent bacterial colonization in medical devices such as catheters. 

While chest pain is a common indicator of heart attacks, it is not a defining symptom, especially in younger patients or in women. Louise Pilote (MUHC) studied 1,000 patients hospitalized for acute coronary syndrome and found that one out of five women 55 years or younger will not present symptoms of chest pain while having a heart attack. The findings have important implications for expanding emergency room heart attack assessments to include consideration of symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath or rapid heartbeats.  

Joseph Malloch and Ian Hattwich, two PhD students in the Input Devices and Music Interaction Lab (IDMIL) working under the supervision of Marcelo Wanderley (Music), have created more than two dozen 3D-printed prosthetic digital instruments. The instruments, which resemble body parts such as spinal columns and ribcages and are worn by the performers, are embedded with sensors that create sounds controlled by the performer's movements.  

In the first large-scale study of its kind, Sabina Sarin, a doctoral student working under the supervision of Irving Binik (Psychology), found that, contrary to popular belief, men differentiate between sexual arousal (changes in the genitals) and sexual desire (a state of mind) as much as women do. This study contributes to a better understanding of different types of sexual disorder: those related to desire for sexual activity, usually associated with sex drive and libido, and those, such as erectile problems, related to physical arousal. 

Jake Barralet (Dentistry and Medicine) has discovered a new way to create strong and stable nanoparticle bonds by coating nanoparticle gels with phosphate and exposing the gels to low power ultrasound. This process minimizes contamination of the environment, makes the process of working with these particles safer for industrial workers, and offers a new, simplified tool for creating functional nanocomposites such as magnetic polymers and conductive ceramic catalysts. 

Prof. Daniel Levitin (Photo by Owen Egan)In the first large-scale review of 400 research papers about the neurochemistry of music, Daniel Levitin (Psychology) showed that playing and listening to music has clear benefits for mental and physical health. Among the insights from the review: listening to music increases production of the antibody immunoglobulin A, reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and can also be more effective than prescriptive drugs in reducing anxiety prior to surgery. 

Derek Bowie (Pharmacology) has discovered that sodium has a unique effect on a major neurotransmitter receptor in the brain known as the kainate receptor, controlling when the receptor gets turned on or off. This finding opens doors to customizing drug therapies for conditions such as epilepsy and neuropathic pain.   

Vertex VX-809 is a common, but not very efficient, treatment for cystic fibrosis. By combining VX-809 with chemical compounds that target two other structural defects in the cystic fibrosis protein, Gergely Lukacs (Physiology) was able to raise the drug efficiency from 15 percent to 60-80 percent in cell culture models. The discovery offers exciting new avenues for improving treatment of the disease.  

People vulnerable to developing alcoholism show a more active dopamine response in the brain after drinking alcohol than those at low-risk for alcohol-use problems, Marco Leyton (Psychiatry) has found. The study may help researchers understand the cause of addictions and possibilities for treatment and prevention. 

In a national study sample including more than 25,000 adolescents aged 11 to 15, Frank Elgar (Institute for Health and Social Policy) found that regular family suppers contribute to good mental health in adolescents. Such suppers, the study noted, provide opportunities for open interaction and the development of positive coping behaviours while allowing adolescents to express concerns and feel valued.

As anyone who has tried to apply a band-aid to wet skin knows, getting substances to adhere to each other in wet conditions can tricky. Marta Cerruti (Materials Engineering and Dentistry) and her team discovered that DOPA (3,4-dihydroxy-l-phenylalanine), a molecule found in naturally sticky marine mussels, can increase the adhesion of several polymers critical for drug delivery, allowing a drug to be released at a site over a longer period of time.

Dr. Robert HessRobert Hess (RI-MUHC) has developed a novel way to treat amblyopia, more commonly known as lazy eye disorder. Hess gave head-mounted video goggles to research participants and invited them to play an unusual game of Tetris: one eye saw only the Tetris blocks as they fell from the top of the screen and the other eye saw only the blocks already on the ground. After two weeks, the participants showed dramatic improvement in vision and 3D depth perception in their weaker eyes. Hess and his colleagues are planning a clinical trial across North America later this year to assess how well this treatment works in children.

Postdoctoral fellow Jean Philippe Lessard (Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science) and colleagues at the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen gave a landmark 19th-century map by British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace a high-tech makeover. The team refined Wallace’s map using Google Earth, GIS software and new phylogenetic, or DNA-derived, data about evolutionary relationships. The new map is a powerful tool for ecological and evolutionary research with major significance for global conservation planning.

Eduardo Franco (Oncology and Epidemiology and Biostatistcs) launched a major study to test the efficacy of a sea-algae derived topical gel in preventing the transmission of the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer. The human trial study has the potential to revolutionize cervical cancer prevention by allowing women to apply the protective gel prior to sexual contact.

Eduardo Chachamovich (Psychiatry) led the world’s first psychological-autopsy study of rising suicide rates among Inuit in Nunavut. The study included 498 interviews with family and friends of 120 suicide victims, as well as reviews of medical and RCMP records. The study found that mental illness, and sexual and physical abuse are substantial suicide risk factors-- (M dash) knowledge that may help predict and prevent future suicides.

The McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence (MWP), created by Laurette Dubé (Desautels), co-hosted major events in India and in Italy to discuss promising projects to curb hunger and improve nutrition and health around the world. MWP is also working in Quebec to examine and monitor health, fitness and food preferences in children in nine communities that have identified children's health as a major priority.

Richard Gold (Law) has published a landmark book about traditional knowledge and genetic resources. Especially pertinent given countries’ recent ratification of the Nagoya Protocol, which provides a legal framework for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources, Gold's book offers case studies and research conducted on biotechnology innovation and intellectual property.

Don Baker (Earth and Planetary Sciences) led an international research team that discovered that the first 10 to 20 seconds of volcanic heating are the determining factor for bubble growth in molten rocks, and, by extension, the size of the ensuing eruption. These findings are an important step toward predicting, and preparing for, eruptions.

Prof. Jens Pruessner (Photo by Adam Scotti)Leading a collaboration between the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Jens Pruessner (Psychiatry) has launched the Prevention of Neurological Diseases in Everyone at Risk project. PONDER offers free online cognitive training. By playing the games and puzzles, people will contribute to the creation of a database of longitudinal cognitive assessments that will give researchers a more complete understanding of neurodegenerative disease and the steps to preventing it. 

Tanja Taivassalo (Kinesiology and Physical Education) is leading an ongoing study to examine the impact of fitness and physical activity on aging. Surveying 20 world-class athletes and competitors over the age of 75, including 82 year-old marathon runner Ed Whitlock and 93 year-old track and field star Olga Kotelko, the study will assess muscle repair, cardiovascular function and cognitive performance.

With less income inequality and stronger family and social supports than the rest of Canada, Quebec boasts some of the happiest people in the country. Chrisopher Barrington-Leigh (Economics, Institute of Health and Social Policy and McGill School of Environment) found that as Quebec has become less like the rest of Canada during the last 30 years, and tensions over language and sovereignty have decreased, Quebeckers have undergone a societal and cultural shift from being the least happy Canadians to the happiest.

Chronic pain is associated with broad epigenetic changes in the brain, Laura Stone (Dentistry and Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain) and MOSHE SZYF (Pharmacology and Therapeutics) have found. The pioneering research opens the possibility to treating chronic pain with behavioural or drug therapies to address DNA methylation in the brain.

Two studies offered new findings on the importance of vitamin D in different areas: cancer prevention and infant health. John White and David Goltzman (Physiology) discovered a molecular basis for how vitamin D can inhibit production and function of cMYC, a protein that drives cell division and is active at elevated levels in more than half of all cancers. Hope Weiler (Dietetics and Human Nutrition) and Celia Rodd (Pediatrics) confirmed that 400 international units of vitamin D is sufficient for infant health. Higher doses, as sometimes recommended in different parts of the world, provide no additional benefits for helping babies grow a healthy skeleton.

Marianne Hatzopoulou (Civil Engineering) launched a three-year project to gather information about the exposure of cyclists and pedestrians to traffic-related pollution. The findings will inform policies and guidelines in urban planning and also lead to mobile applications that will show routes that minimize exposure to pollution.

Quebec Science magazine's top discoveries of 2012

Two of the Québec Science magazine’s Top 10 scientific breakthroughs of 2012 were by McGill researchers:

  • Lucy Gilbert (Obstetrics, Gynecology and Oncology): The deadliest type of ovarian cancer often starts in the Fallopian tubes rather than in the ovaries. This discovery could revolutionize the way the disease is diagnosed and treated.
  • George Haller (Mechanical Engineering): Mathematical methods could help manage environmental disasters by, for example, predicting the movement of oil in the ocean or volcanic ash in the air.

Two studies revealed new insight into sleep and health. Nahum Sonenberg (Biochemistry) identified a protein known as 4E-BP1 that slows recovery time following a sleep disruption, opening avenues for treating circadian clock dysfunction such as jet lag and shift work disorders. REUT GRUBER (Psychology) found that school-aged children who sleep 27 extra minutes per night relative to the usual amount of sleep they get are less impulsive, less easily distracted and less likely to have temper tantrums. 

Nitika Pant Pai (Medicine and RI-MUHC) demonstrated that hepatitis C point-of-care tests are as reliable as conventional laboratory tests. These rapid tests  do not require specialized equipment – or, sometimes, even electricity – and can provide results within one working day, speeding diagnosis and treatment for millions of infected individuals worldwide.

Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology) with Prof. Greg Dudek and the AQUA robot (Photo by Owen Egan)The newly-formed NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network led by Gregory Dudek (Computer Science) received $5 million to help create advanced robots capable of working in extreme cold and darkness. The hope is that these robots will help save humans from working in dangerous, or cost-prohibitive, conditions.

Lesley Fellows (Neurology and Neurosurgery, The Neuro) received $2.49 million as part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research HIV/AIDS Research Initiative. Fellows will lead a team of experts seeking to improve brain health in HIV-infected individuals.

A comprehensive study to determine factors of democracy, economic growth and social cohesion has found that post-conflict states that take a flexible approach to peace are more likely to achieve it over the long-term. Study author Philip Oxhorn (Institute for the Study of International Development) examined seven countries that have experienced periods of profound violence – Bosnia, Colombia, Lebanon, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Sudan – lasting peace corresponds to political institutions showing a willingness to adapt to change.

The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) will oversee data collection for one of the most comprehensive aging studies ever conducted. The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) spans 11 locations across Canada, with 160 researchers from 26 Canadian universities, and will follow the health and quality of life of 50,000 men and women for 20 years.