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McGill partners with KINOVA to foster innovation in robotics

jeu, 05/17/2018 - 15:33

Left to Right: Prof. Jake Barralet (McGill), Stuart Kozlick (Kinova), Dr. David Eidelman (McGill), Dr. Kevin Lachapelle (McGill), François Boucher (Kinova), Prof. Dave Meger (McGill) at today’s announcement. / Photo: Owen Egan / Joanie Dufour

By Diane Weidner

McGill and KINOVA, one of Canada’s fastest-growing robotics companies, have signed an agreement that aims to foster productive and collaborative research to fuel the cycle of innovation. This partnership will harness the possibilities of technology and robotics through KINOVA’s collaboration with McGill’s Faculty of Medicine at the Steinberg Centre for Simulation and Interactive Learning, and with the Faculties of Engineering and Science’s joint Centre for Intelligent Machines (CIM).

The accord paves the way for open collaboration on a variety of projects involving medical, surgical or assistive robotics. The pact will help to integrate robotics into daily learning at the university and builds on KINOVA’s history of harnessing technology to help those living with illness. The Montreal company was co-founded by Charles Deguire, who supported and assisted three of his uncles living with muscular dystrophy. Inspired by one uncle’s invention of a makeshift arm to help with tasks such as picking up a glass of water or opening doors, Deguire helped lay the groundwork for KINOVA.

“By maximizing the distinct capabilities of our two market-leading entities, we aim to develop collaboratively novel technologies and solutions with the objective of helping to improve the standard of care around the world,” says Stuart Kozlick, Vice President of Medical Robotics at KINOVA. “This collaboration with McGill University is another important step in our commitment to advancing medical robotic technologies. Together, we aim to put the best science, technology, and research know-how in the hands of medical teams around the world.”

“At the core of successful partnerships are shared values, such as that of McGill and KINOVA to bring innovative solutions to society through research,” said Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. “With KINOVA’s robotic arms and industrial guidance, two of McGill’s top interdisciplinary research groups, the CIM and the Steinberg Centre, will integrate robotics into daily learning and research at the university and create opportunities to accomplish extraordinary feats beyond their own limits.”

The Steinberg Centre facilities provide an optimal virtual environment for the design, development and implementation of novel products and processes prior to their introduction into clinical settings. “Working with KINOVA’s Robotic Manipulator Arm represents the first wave of our innovation mission, to use simulation as a tool to assist in the progress of medical innovations,” says Jake Barralet, Director of Innovation at the Steinberg Centre and Faculty of Medicine. “Having access to the expertise of KINOVA developers who will be based at our Centre will allow us to develop a wider range of academic and technological specialism in solving modern health care challenges.”

CIM is a leader in Canada in field robotics, developing theory, hardware, and software for high-performance autonomous and semi-autonomous robotic mechanisms and systems. “The collaboration with KINOVA will allow CIM researchers to more fully test their theories and techniques on practical applications in assistive robotics and human-robot interaction,” notes James Clark, Director of CIM. “Being able to work closely with KINOVA engineers and scientists and having access to state-of-the-art robot manipulators will enhance the research and training mission of CIM.”

Keith Blanchet, Director of Innovation at KINOVA is excited to see these two renowned groups at McGill engaged to make a difference with KINOVA in a cross-sector collaboration framework. “With the acceleration of technology evolution, collaborations such as this are key to KINOVA’s growth and will enable the research community to tackle the global challenges facing us.”


Visiting scholar earns Getty/ACLS Postdoc Fellowship

jeu, 05/17/2018 - 15:10

Gül Kale

By McGill Reporter Staff

Gül Kale, a visiting scholar at the Institute of Islamic Studies, is one of 10 recipients of the new Getty/ American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Postdoctoral Fellowships in the History of Art.

Each 12-month fellowship includes a $60,000 stipend and an additional $5,000 for travel and research. Awardees will convene at the Getty Foundation for a week-long residency upon completion of their fellowships, creating a community of scholars connected to one another. The fellowships encourage projects that make substantial and original contributions to the understanding of art and its history, an endeavor that now includes both technical and digital art history.

Kale, who holds a PhD from McGill’s Architectural History and Theory Program (2014), is an affiliated fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin. The Getty/ACLS Fellowship will support Kale’s work titled Unfolding Text, Image, and Artifact: Theory, Poetics, and Ethics in Cafer Efendi’s Seventeenth-Century Book on Ottoman Architecture. The book-length project is the first sustained and critical analysis of A Book on Architecture, the scholar Cafer Efendi’s book about Ottoman architecture and the life of Mehmed Agha, the chief architect of the Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul in 1617.

“We believe that research support is essential to maintain art history as a strong and vital discipline in the humanities,” said Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Foundation. “The Getty Foundation’s partnership with ACLS is an opportunity to provide promising scholars the time and space they need to write, travel, and interact with collections and peers. We hope these fellows will become future leaders in art history.”

The Postdoctoral Fellowships were a flagship Getty Foundation program for 25 years. From 1984 to 2009, over 350 fellowships were awarded to scholars at the beginning of their careers. The program focused on broadening the definition of the visual arts and strengthening the connection between art history and other humanistic disciplines.

The new program allows for more cross-disciplinary research, new modes of interpretation, and projects that have an impact on the broader field of art history beyond the recipient’s specific sub-fields.

“This year’s awardees exemplify the new fellowship program’s commitment to advancing innovative research that not only broadens the understanding of art and its history, but enriches humanistic knowledge around the world,” said Pauline Yu, president of ACLS. “We look forward to another amazing and global pool of applicants next year.”

See the full list of recipients.

How will climate change impact Quebec’s protected areas?

jeu, 05/17/2018 - 12:47

Climate change in Quebec may lead to a much greater diversity of species and a need to rethink conservation paradigms. / Photo: Neale McDevitt

By Katherine Gombay

A team of researchers believe that Quebec’s protected areas are poised to become biodiversity refuges of continental importance. They used ecological niche modelling to calculate potential changes in the presence of 529 species in about 1/3 of the protected areas in southern Quebec almost all of which were under 50 km2, in size.

Their results suggest that fifty to eighty years from now (between 2071–2100) close to half of the protected regions of southern Quebec may see a species turnover of greater than 80 per cent. The research team, from l’Université du Québec à Rimouski, le Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs, and McGill believe that, depending on the region, the gain in the number of species of birds, amphibians, trees, and vascular flowering plants could range from 12 and 530 per cent. It is the first study to examine in such details the potential effects of climate change on the biodiversity of a large network of northern protected areas.

A need to rethink conservation paradigms?

The researchers believe that the scale and rapidity of the species turnover will also result in a necessary reexamination of current conservation paradigms, since it will be impossible to preserve a snapshot of today’s biodiversity in the National Parks. More specifically, the researchers believe that:

  • Rather than trying to preserve current biodiversity in the National Parks, a more effective conservation strategy to ensure future biodiversity may be to preserve site resilience and a diversity of physical features and conditions.
  • There will potentially be complicated choices ahead for managers of protected areas as increasing numbers of new immigrant species colonize protected sites. If historical communities are deeply modified, the managers may need self-sustaining populations of non-native species in some protected areas. But newly arriving species may also have negative impacts on ecosystem structure and function.
  • Assigning conservation status to rare and recently naturalized species may prove a thorny issue, given that a significant portion of northern species are already at risk. But the conservation value of rare new species should be considered in a long-term continental perspective rather than short-term national perspective.
  • It will be important to preserve and restore connectivity of protected areas to allow potential corridors for migration. In this way, species will avoid being trapped for decades or centuries between rapid retreat from the territory’s southern edge and only a slow advance on the northern edge.

The researchers caution, however, that potential species gains should not draw attention away from the potential extinction of local species that may no longer find suitable conditions in future in the protected areas where they are at the moment. The geographical pattern of potential relative species loss suggests that several species could disappear in both the southernmost protected areas of Quebec, and in the higher latitudes, where the extinction of only a few local species can have drastic effects on whole ecological communities.

Read the full article Northern protected areas will become important refuges for biodiversity tracking suitable climates online.

Living with MS – A patient’s story

jeu, 05/17/2018 - 12:22

Marc Vaillancourt hasn’t let living with MS for the past 18 years slow him down. “I have a good life,” he says.

Diagnosed with MS almost two decades ago, Marc Vaillancourt refused to change his lifestyle

By Victor Swoboda

Marc Vaillancourt remembers his defiant reaction when Dr. Liam Durcan, a neurologist at The Neuro, confirmed a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS).

“I told the doctor, ‘This disease is not going to change my life.’”

That was about 18 years ago. Since then, Vaillancourt, now 49, has dutifully taken medicine to manage his relapsing-remitting MS, but stubbornly has not altered his lifestyle.

“I was told to avoid the sun — I often had my MS symptoms in summer — but I love summer and the heat. That’s why I go south every winter,” says Vaillancourt, a creative director in advertising who works from home.

Nonetheless, as a result of MS, he had to relent and give up rugby, a sport that he played while living in Australia as a university student in the mid-1990s.

“When I returned to Canada, I played rugby in a West Island Montreal league but I had to quit because my dexterity was bad.”

Vaillancourt first noticed that something was wrong in his final year at university.

“I began getting severe pain in my eye. My vision was blurry. I had a headache that lasted four or five weeks.”

Body doesn’t respond to brain’s commands

Australian doctors speculated that it might be a brain tumour or other form of cancer, but it was not until a year after Vaillancourt returned to Canada that the disconnect between his mind and muscles noticeably bothered him.

“I was at a computer and my brain was saying, ‘Move the mouse,’ but my hand wasn’t moving it. I saw my general practitioner and he sent me at once to Dr. Durcan.”

Vaillancourt underwent magnetic resonance scans as well as a lumbar puncture, a diagnostic procedure in which cerebrospinal fluid is removed from the lower spine with a needle. Born and raised in the francophone area of northern Ontario, Vaillancourt came from a family with no history of MS.

“I didn’t know anything about MS,” recalls Vaillancourt. “The only thing I knew was Annette Funicello.”

Funicello, a Hollywood actress who became famous in the 1950s as a TV Mouseketeer and later as a teen star in California beach movies, publicly revealed in 1992 that she had MS. A Canadian documentary profiling her in 2012 showed her in a wheelchair, unable to walk or talk. She died a year later at age 70.

Under the care of Dr. Amit Bar Orr, a former neurologist at The Neuro, Vaillancourt participated for more than a decade in a clinical trial of the drug Aubagio.

“My remissions were always unpredictable,” recalls Vaillancourt of those years. “I could be in remission for a couple of days or a week. Everybody who has MS has different symptoms. When I had my lumbar puncture, I became friendly with a girl who was diagnosed with MS at the same time. She’s been in a wheelchair for almost ten years. It’s weird how this disease differs among men and women. And there’s a higher incidence of MS among women than men.”

Health Canada approved Aubagio in 2013 but approval was not to Vaillancourt’s benefit.

“I was on the seven milligram version of Aubagio but Health Canada approved only the 14 milligram version,” he notes. “I began the 14 milligrams, but it wasn’t doing well for me.”

New prescription, new man

Vaillancourt subsequently fell into “a little depression” and was less active, which caused him to put on weight. Dr. Bar Orr prescribed a different MS drug, Lemtrada.

“I finished my second cycle of Lemtrada last October and now I feel like a new man,” says Vaillancourt. “I go to the gym four or five times a week, and take hour-long walks.”

But there were side effects related to the drug.

“My sleep patterns became completely different. I have trouble falling asleep. Dr. Bar Orr prescribed me a medication if I can’t sleep. I’m a creature of habit and routine and still rise at seven. I’d like to try and see about going back to a nine to five job and how my body would react.”

Vaillancourt describes himself as “the kind of person who always sees the positive in everything.” Oddly enough, he finds that his approach can work against him.

“Friends have told me, ‘You’re too positive sometimes because people don’t know if you need help.’ I don’t ask for help because I don’t want to be a burden. I’d rather people offer help.”

Vaillancourt also finds that his normal appearance and behaviour can belie his condition.

“My friends and others who have MS say that just by looking at me, they wouldn’t guess I had MS. At other times, they know right away that I’m having an episode, but they know I’m still Marc. Some friends wonder, ‘Should we invite you over?’ and I say, ‘Just extend the invitation and I’ll say yes or no.’”

Vaillancourt says that people sometimes make the mistake of believing that they should leave someone with a disease alone because “he needs to rest.”

When Dr. Bar Orr left The Neuro last year, he left Vaillancourt in the hands of his colleague, Dr. Alex Saveriano. Vaillancourt now sees Dr. Saveriano every six months.

With regular clinical care, effective medication, and an understanding circle of friends, Marc can honestly say, “I have a good life.”

Beyond killing tuberculosis

jeu, 05/17/2018 - 11:48

Maziar Divangahi and Nargis Khan at the Meakins-Christie Laboratories at the Research Institute of the MUHC, Glen site.

How can we tolerate an infection without eliminating a pathogen?

By MUHC Public Affairs

Historically, our view of host defense against infection was that we must eliminate pathogens to eradicate disease. However, this perspective has recently been challenged as scientists have taken a lesson from plant biologists about an ancient strategy involving the ability to “tolerate” rather than “resist” infection to maintain health. This concept, referred to as “disease tolerance,” provides an opportunity to develop new strategies that mitigate the consequences of infection.

Since the discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, or Mtb, (the bacteria causing TB) over a century ago, great progress has been made in defining strategies that facilitate elimination of the bacteria. For instance, the discovery of antibiotics was a major breakthrough in the treatment of active TB. However, greater than 90 per cent of TB-infected individuals tolerate the bacteria without any treatment.

Colored X-ray of a patient’s chest showing disseminated tuberculosis in the lungs. The lungs contain lesions (tubercles, pink) consisting of infected dead tissue. / Image: Du Cane Medical Imaging Ltd / Science Photo Library

Dr. Maziar Divangahi, a pulmonary immunologist at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), and a professor of Medicine at McGill, has been trying to explain why the vast majority of people infected with Mtb can tolerate the infection without developing disease. Clinicians refer to this condition as “latent tuberculosis”, and it affects a quarter of the global population. “TB is a perfect example of disease tolerance,” says Dr. Divangahi who is also the associate director of the Translational Research in Respiratory Diseases Program at the RI-MUHC and a member of the McGill International TB Centre.

Dr. Divangahi’s team found that rather than fighting to resist the pathogen, the body’s tolerance to Mtb is the key mechanism for preventing the spread of the infection. More surprisingly, they found that having excessive levels of T cells, which are known as soldiers of our immune system, could cause more harm than good.

“We always thought that having more T cells would provide better protection against TB. Instead, we found that it could imbalance disease tolerance causing extensive tissue damage and ultimately killing the host,” says Dr. Divangahi, lead author of the study published recently in Science Immunology, who is the also the associate director of the Meakins-Christie Laboratories.

Disease tolerance versus host resistance

Our body’s defense system is divided into two arms: one is resistance, which aims to eliminate the pathogen, while the other is tolerance, which is designed to control the tissue damage caused by the infection.

“While disease tolerance is an established field of research in simple organisms such as plants, our understanding of this host defense strategy in humans is very limited,” says Dr. Divangahi.

Although, immunologists and vaccinologists have made progress in the study of host resistance to infectious diseases, little is known about the mechanisms of disease tolerance in humans.

A key protein in disease tolerance

Dr. Divangahi’s team determined that a protein in the mitochondria called cyclophilin D (CypD) acts as a key checkpoint for T cell activation. Through collaboration with McGill’s Dr. Russell Jones, who is an international expert in T cell biology, they identified that CypD is required for controlling T cell metabolism.  “T cells are traditionally considered to be important in eliminating Mtb,” says Dr. Divangahi. “However, we found that increasing T cell activation in mice by eliminating a metabolic checkpoint unexpectedly compromised host survival without any impact on the growth of Mtb.”

“In contrast to conventional thinking, we show that T cells are essential for regulating the body’s tolerance to Mtb infection,” explains one of the study’s first authors, Dr. Nargis Khan, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Divangahi’s lab at the RI-MUHC.

Giving the widespread drug resistance to various Mtb strains the limited pipeline of effective antibiotics and the lack of an efficient vaccine, alternative approaches to treat TB are urgent. “If we could understand the mechanisms of ‘natural immunity’ that controls TB in 90-95 per cent of infected individuals,” says Dr. Divangahi,“we will able to design a novel therapy or vaccine to substantially reduce the world wide burden of this ancient disease.”

Trash2Treasure recycles unwanted household items to furnish refugees’ homes

mer, 05/16/2018 - 15:47

In all, five tons of used household items were diverted from landfills during the Trash2Treasure pilot project.

By McGill Reporter Staff

The elephant has left the room – or at least the Milton Park neighbourhood.

Between April 27 and May 6, volunteers from the Trash2Treasure (T2T) pilot project collected five ton – the average weight of an African elephant – of used household goods left behind by students moving out at the end of the term. Adding to that success, enough recyclable material was amassed to furnish the homes of 19 refugee families.

The first concerted attempt by McGill and the surrounding community to reduce the amount of detritus dumped on the streets by departing students got good marks from all involved.

“At the Students’ Society of McGill University Community Affairs we’re really happy with the results of the project, particularly with the positive feedback we received from both the Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee (MPCC), and Milton-Parc student residents,” says Law student and SSMU Community Affairs Commissioner Julien Tremblay Gravel, one of the organizers of T2T 2018. “We had predicted that the group that would be most likely to use T2T would be graduating students, and it looks like we were right.”

In all, 83 students signed up to have their unwanted goods picked up for free, and 49 appointments were carried out. Most of those who signed up were members of the SSMU. Volunteers also collected goods abandoned on the streets around McGill.

The work was done by thirteen volunteers from McGill and seven from the Programme régional d’accueil et d’intégration des demandeurs d’asile (PRAIDA), an organization that helps refugees and those who need help with their immigration status.

Household goods were sorted and donated to two well-known Montreal charities, Welcome Collective and Renaissance Montreal. Welcome Collective delivers quality household items to asylum seeker families that have been assigned unfurnished apartments. Renaissance Montreal helps people reintegrate into the work force by employing them in the recycling and selling of used goods in over 20 stores across the greater Montreal area.

Instead of ending up in a landfill, the five tons of furniture and household items were used to furnish the homes of 19 refugee families.

The annual spring harvest of objects abandoned on the streets and in the lanes around the campus is a longstanding irritant for permanent residents. Past attempts by student groups to address the problem provided the foundations to this year’s project.

T2T is a collaboration between borough officials, SSMU, the office of the Dean of Students, Student Housing and Hospitality Services, the MPCC, and the Société pour l’Action, l’Éducation et la Sensibilisation Environnementale de Montréal  (SAESEM), a non-profit organization specializing in sustainable solutions to waste management.


Brenda Milner honoured by Montreal and Quebec

mar, 05/15/2018 - 18:22

Brenda Milner (left) with Mayor Valérie Plante, shortly after Milner’s induction as Commander of the Order of Montreal at City Hall on May 14.

Quebec National Assembly, City of Montreal present celebrated neuropsychologist with honours 

By Shawn Hayward

Brenda Milner has collected her share of awards, prizes, honourary degrees and other recognitions throughout her amazing career, but there is something special about being recognized with top honours from the city and province she has called home since 1944, all within one week.

On May 8, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Quebec, Jacques Chagnon presented Milner with its Medal of Honour, along with seven other Quebecers including McGill alumna Dr. Joanne Liu. The Medal of Honour is awarded to public figures from all walks of life who, through their career, their work or their social commitment, have earned the recognition of the Members of the National Assembly and the people of Quebec.

Brenda Milner receives the Medal of Honour from Quebec National Assembly Speaker Jacques Chagnon.

Milner added to that recognition the title of Commander of the Order of Montreal, given to her by Mayor Valérie Plante during a ceremony at City Hall on May 14. The Order of Montreal was created on the city’s 375th anniversary to recognize women and men who have contributed in a remarkable way to the city’s development and reputation. There are three ranks in the Order, Commander being the highest.

A celebrated researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro), Milner turns 100 years old on July 15. She is the Dorothy J. Killam Professor at The Neuro, and a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University.

Milner has had an extraordinary influence on the shape of neuroscience and on the work of scientists around the world. The origins of modern cognitive neuroscience of memory can be traced directly to her rigorous and imaginative studies. Just some of the awards she has collected over her outstanding career include the Dan David Prize and the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience in 2014, the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize in 2011, the Norman A. Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, the International Balzan Foundation Award, the Goldman-Rakic Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Cognitive Neuroscience in 2009 and the Prix Hommage du 50e anniversaire from the Ordre des psychologues de Quebec. She was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 2012. Milner is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of Canada, and a Companion of the Order of Canada.

On September 6 and 7, The Neuro will hold the Brenda Milner Centennial Symposium in her honour.

Dispatches from the Africa Mercy #5: Crossing the Bridge

mar, 05/15/2018 - 16:36

Dr. Sherif Emil with nurses, patients and parents during the last day on the Africa Mercy.

Dr. Sherif Emil is a pediatric surgeon at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatric surgery at McGill. Dr. Emil was recently in Douala, Cameroon, on his third mission to the Africa Mercy. The Africa Mercy is the world’s largest civilian hospital ship dedicated to bringing hope and healing to tens of thousands of the world’s impoverished  populations. This is the fifth and final instalment of Dr. Emil’s dispatches from aboard the Africa Mercy.

By Dr. Sherif Emil

The final day on the Africa Mercy is always the most difficult, not physically but emotionally. In our operating room hall meeting, it is not uncommon for operating room crew of all types – nurses, anesthesiologists, anesthesia technicians, surgeons – to shed tears as they receive their certificate of service. I am no exception. I have to work hard to hold back tears as I thank everyone for the lessons they have again taught us. It is a bittersweet moment – a separation anxiety of sorts.

The day’s emotions are heightened by the follow-up clinic, where I see most of the patients I have operated on during this mission. Little children, who a few days ago anxiously entered a foreign Ship full of strange-looking people, now return full of smiles, dispensing warm and spontaneous hugs liberally to the nurses and doctors. Teenagers who were despondent and flat, burdened by their disability when I met them in the screening clinic, are now beaming with pride at their new body image and abilities. The story of the Africa Mercy is told over and over through each of these lives.

The emotions are not only heightened by our encounter with the patients, but also by our encounter with the staff – so many acts of genuine kindness and love towards Etienne and I on our final day – until the final moment of departure from the dock. As I descend the gangway with my luggage, I can’t help but think of those who will ascend it tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that to continue the work. I almost feel envious of those yet to join this ever-changing community.  On the dock, I thank Merrill, the OR supervisor, marvelling at her amazing coordination that enabled me to perform 46 procedures on 32 patients. “You know, the idea of the Africa Mercy would never work on paper,” she reminds me. “It only works in real life.”

A few days ago, I was dining in the cafeteria with Gary Parker, the chief medical officer who has lived and operated on the Africa Mercy for the last 30 years. “This Ship is a bridge between two worlds,” he tells me. “Between our societies where much is available and Africa where little is available.” And as I sit writing this on Air France Flight 982 heading from Paris to Montreal, I can’t help but feel that I am also crossing the bridge back to what I left behind a month ago. And as I cross the bridge, excited and eager to see my wife and daughters after a long absence, I also can’t help but to keep looking back at that other world – the world where things happen in real life that can never be planned on paper.

Many have followed these dispatches over these last three weeks – thank you all for taking this journey with me. The last message I shared from the Africa Mercy in Madagascar over two years ago was this:  The real story of the Africa Mercy is not just about free surgical care among the poorest of the poor of Africa. It is not just about planting hope in the midst of despair. It is not just about capacity building in resource-poor countries. It is not even just about making a difference in the lives of tens of thousands– one life at a time – one country at a time. The real story of the Africa Mercy is about mercy – a merciful community, diverse and always changing, that has chosen to show its love through its actions. And in a world where evil is not only done, but also often celebrated, advertised and paraded, the people of the Africa Mercy remind us of what we as humans can accomplish if we are driven by mercy.

And this remains my last message today.

Related stories

Dispatches from the Africa Mercy #1: If you want to go far…

Dispatches from the Africa Mercy #2: Transformations

Dispatches from the Africa Mercy #3: Angels of Mercy

Dispatches from the Africa Mercy #4: Irene of Montreal

Mathematician Daniel Wise elected Fellow of Royal Society

mar, 05/15/2018 - 16:17

Daniel Wise, James McGill Professor in the Dept. of Mathematics and Statistics.

By McGill Reporter Staff

Daniel Wise, James McGill Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, is one of 50 eminent scientists who were elected as Fellows of the Royal Society and ten as new Foreign Members for their exceptional contributions to science.

Founded in the 1660’s,  Royal Society is a Fellowship of many of the world’s most eminent scientists and is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence. The Society’s fundamental purpose is to recognize, promote and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

“Our Fellows are key to the Royal Society’s fundamental purpose of using science for the benefit of humanity. From Norwich to Melbourne to Ethiopia, this year’s newly elected Fellows and Foreign Members of the Royal Society are testament that science is a global endeavour and excellent ideas transcend borders,” said Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, during the announcement on may 9. “We also recognize the cutting edge innovation taking place across industry, with many of this year’s Fellows coming from the thriving tech industry. For their outstanding contributions to research and innovation, both now and in the future, it gives me great pleasure to welcome the world’s best scientists into the ranks of the Royal Society.”

Prof. Wise is a pure mathematician specializing in Geometric Group Theory, which studies symmetry through its interaction with algebra, geometry and topology. He grew up in New York and received his BA from Yeshiva University and his PhD from Princeton (1996). The early stage of his career was at Berkeley, Cornell, and Brandeis, and he then moved to McGill in 2001, where he is James McGill Professor.

Prof. Wise’s scientific agenda has been to explore and promulgate the utility and ubiquity of nonpositively curved cubical geometry in group theory and topology. His program of research led to the solution of several outstanding problems in combinatorial group theory and 3-manifold topology. For this, he was awarded the Oswald Veblen prize in 2013, became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2014, spoke at the ICM in 2014, was Poincare Chair at the IHP in 2015, and in 2016 he received the CRM-Fields-PIMS Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

See the complete list of new Fellows of the Royal Society and new Foreign Members.

Developing the first effective drug for progressive MS

mar, 05/15/2018 - 15:43

Neurologist Douglas Arnold analyzed massive clinical trial data in the development of a drug that combats two forms of multiple sclerosis.

By Victor Swoboda

A clinician/scientist at The Neuro played a major role in developing a drug that offers hope to people with two forms of multiple sclerosis (MS), including one where no other effective drug existed.

Neurologist Douglas Arnold helped determine the effectiveness of ocrelizumab, the first drug treatment approved for the treatment of primary progressive multiple sclerosis (PPMS). A major breakthrough drug, ocrelizumab (known commercially as ocrevus) was approved in 2017 in the United States for patients with either PPMS or the relapsing-remitting form of MS. Late in the same year, the government agency, Health Canada, approved the drug for Canadians with relapsing-remitting MS, and in February, 2018, approved it for PPMS treatment as well.

Approval of ocrelizumab came following development and clinical trials managed by the pharmaceutical company Hoffman-La Roche during the past several years.

“I am on the steering committee for the clinical trials that developed ocrelizumab, advising on the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data collected from participating clinical sites,” says Dr. Arnold. “Standardized magnetic resonance (MR) imaging scans were collected from around the world, and then analyzed to provide the data required by government regulators to get the drug approved.”

About 9,000 MRI scans of thousands of MS patients were provided from hundreds of clinical sites. Analysis of this massive amount of data was undertaken under Dr. Arnold’s supervision by a Montreal-based firm that works with pharmaceutical companies, NeuroRx, which provides highly precise MRI outcome assessments according to strict regulations.

“MR is by far the best way to see the hallmark inflammatory demyelinating brain lesions of MS,” says Dr. Arnold.

Myelin is a protective sheath covering axons, the thin strands that connect billions of nerve cells in the body. When myelin is damaged or undergoes atrophy, nerve cells begin failing to connect. Demyelination is a root cause of MS.

“We analyzed patients’ scans to see to what extent ocrelizumab slowed the atrophy and prevented formation of new MS lesions. In the case of this drug, new lesion formation was almost completely suppressed.”

Ocrelizumab influences the action of the body’s B cells, a subset of lymphocytes that are important for the abnormal attack of the immune system on myelin in multiple sclerosis patients. Administering ocrelizumab causes B cells to break down.

Ocrelizumab is administered intravenously once every six months.

“The first dose can be associated with infusion reactions, but these are relatively uncommon after that, and are not that severe,” says Dr. Arnold.

According to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, side effects could include urinary tract infections, influenza, upper respiratory tract infections and cold-like symptoms such as swelling of the nasal passages and throat.

It should be noted that clinical data came from patients between the ages of 18 and 55.

“It’s not clear how well ocrelizumab works in older people who have had progressive multiple sclerosis for a long time,” cautions Dr. Arnold, adding that research continues.

The Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada notes that “the safety and efficacy of ocrelizumab outside of the age range of 18 to 55 is unknown.” The Society advises older patients who are interested in ocrelizumab to consult their neurologist.

The cost of ocrelizumab in Canada is still being determined. As well, the federal government and the provincial government in Quebec are deciding to what extent the cost of the drug will be borne by their respective public health insurance plans.

“Although it’s not on Quebec’s health plan yet, physicians can apply to get ocrelizumab directly from the company as part of a bridging program until the government sets a cost price along with the requirements for prescribing it,” says Dr. Arnold.

In two words, Dr. Arnold summed up the significant difference between ocrelizumab and several other MS drugs used in the past to treat progressive multiple sclerosis: “It works.”

Claudio Cuello elected to the British Academy of Medical Sciences

mar, 05/15/2018 - 15:11

Dr. Claudio Cuello

By Jason Clement

Dr. Claudio Cuello, Professor and inaugural Charles E. Frosst/Merck endowed Chair in Pharmacology at the Faculty of Medicine is among a group of 48 leading biomedical and health scientists whose work is being recognized with election to the prestigious British Academy of Medical Sciences, announced on May 10.  The new Fellows have been elected for their outstanding contributions to biomedical and health science, leading research discoveries, and translating developments into benefits for patients and the wider society. The new Fellows will be formally inducted during a ceremony on June 27.

“The announcement of my election as Fellow of the British Academy of Medical Sciences has been a most gratifying one,” says Dr. Cuello. “This honour has profound significance for me, as it recognizes decades of research which introduced new ideas and new methodologies in the Neurosciences, work which would not have been possible without the support I received from Cambridge and Oxford Universities and from McGill and foremost for the privilege of having worked with outstanding collaborators and equally outstanding trainees, both in Britain and in Canada.”

Dr. Cuello was recruited to McGill from Oxford University to Chair the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 1985. He held this position, elected for three consecutive terms, from 1985 to the year 2000. During that period the Department experienced a major transformation. It was “modernized” and fully equipped. He recruited outstanding Professors and the Graduate Program grew from 12 to 80+ registered graduate students. The McGill Department of Pharmacology generates presently about 5% of all the North America PhDs in the field. During his Chairmanship departmental publications rose from 30 to 100 annually, trebling their average journal impact.

At McGill, Dr. Cuello directs a vibrant and successful research group focused on unravelling the earliest biochemical-pathological events of the Alzheimer’s pathology; searching for early biomarkers and novel  experimental therapies capable of arresting or reverting the early Alzheimer’s pathology. His group recently made important contributions to the understanding of CNS trophic factor deregulation both in Alzheimer’s disease and in Down syndrome. He is a Visiting Professor at Oxford University, an Adjunct Professor in Neuropharmacology at the Scripps Institute (La Jolla) and Toh Chin Chye Visiting Professorship in Molecular Biology & Medicine at the National University of Singapore.

He has made pioneering publications on dendritic release of neurotransmitters, the localization and role of central and peripheral neuropeptides, trophic factor-induced repair and synaptogenesis, novel applications of monoclonal antibodies in the neurosciences and the generation of novel transgenic models of the Alzheimer’s-like amyloid pathology. He has co-discovered bi-specific monoclonal antibodies with Cesar Milstein (Nobel Laureate) and his contributions to the hybridoma technology have been highlighted in a 2013, MRC (UK), online exhibition: www.whatisbiotechnology.org/exhibitions/milstein/patents and in Laura Marks’ book ‘”The Lock and Key” of Medicine: Monoclonal antibodies and their transformation of healthcare‘ , Yale University Press, NY, 2015.

Dr. Cuello has received numerous recognitions including the Estela A de Goytia Award of the Argentina Society for the Advancement of Science, the Robert Feulgen Award (Germany), the Iberdrola Visiting Professorship Award (Spain), the Grass Foundation Traveling Scientist Award, the Heinz Lehman Award and the Novartis Award of the Canadian Pharmacological Society. He has been made Honorary Professor of the Norman Bethune University (China) and of the Faculty of Pharmacy and Biochemistry, University of Buenos Aires (Argentina). He has been named Honorary Citizen of New Orleans (USA), invested as Doctor Honoris Causa at the Federal University of Ceara (Brazil), Foreign Member of the Real Academy of Medicine and Surgery, Murcia, Spain and of Honorary Doctor in Medicine of Kuopio University (Finland), Professor Honoris Causa of the Favaloro University, Argentina and recipient of the LSU (New Orleans) Chancellor’s Award and Lecture for contributions to the Neuroscience. He is recipient of the 2015 “Raices” (Roots) Prize of the Argentine Ministry of Science and Technology for his international contributions.

He has authored over 400 scientific publications, with over 25,000 citations and has been named as a Highly Cited Neuroscientist by the Institute of Scientific Information in the United States. His current “H-index” is 88 with over 28,000 citations (Google Scholar).  He has given a number of “named” lectures in Europe and North America and he is frequently invited to give lectures at major international meetings. He has been inducted as Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His passage through science has been included in the Society for Neuroscience, (USA) series of “The History of Neuroscience in Autobiographies” (Academic Press, NY, 2000. ed. Larry R. Squire, Academic Press, NY, 2001). He has been recently (2011) inducted as an “Officer of the Order of Canada” by the Governor General of Canada for his contributions to the Neurosciences and Alzheimer’s research.

Read the Academy of Medical Science’s press release.

Do your part for employment equity

lun, 05/14/2018 - 16:22

By Neale McDevitt

In August 2017, McGill launched a new Employment Equity Survey that is intended to help the University ensure the full participation and career advancement of all groups within the McGill workforce. Though short in length – taking about 30 seconds to complete – the Survey will have a significant impact on the University by helping identify employment barriers for underrepresented groups and ensuring their appropriate representation at McGill.

The McGill Reporter sat down with Angela Campbell, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies), and Tynan Jarrett, Employment Equity Advisor, to look at the Survey in detail and find out why it is so important that all McGill employees complete it.

Why an employment equity survey?

Angela Campbell: All universities should have a tool to collect data about its population, in this case, about its workforce. It’s like a census to see who works here.

McGill has had an employment equity survey since 2007, after the Employment Equity Policy was created. The original survey was quite basic in terms of the data we were collecting, and in fact it didn’t completely fulfill our obligations under the policy.

The  survey launched in August 2017 is more refined and gives us a more detailed picture of who makes up our workforce.

Tynan Jarrett: Having a better idea of who we have in our workforce allows us to identify gaps within employment at McGill. We then analyze these gaps to try to understand barriers to employment for underrepresented groups. It is a dynamic process where we use the survey results to develop and implement strategies to address the issue of underrepresentation, and then check to see if the strategies are working by looking updated survey results.

How important is it for people to take the survey?

TJ: The more people respond, the more complete our picture is of McGill’s workforce, and the better we can effectuate positive changes for employees and for McGill overall.

AC: The survey is designed to be as quick – about 30 seconds! – and as painless as possible. But Those 30 seconds can make a real difference.

Can you give us some examples of “gaps in our workforce” and how the University can address them?

AC: Visible minorities are underrepresented across job categories at McGill, but with our former survey that was all the information we had. We didn’t know, for example, how many people identified as Latin American versus South Asian. The Survey will give us a clearer picture of these important details.

In particular, we know that Black and Indigenous professors are underrepresented at McGill and in the academy more broadly. It’s important for us to acknowledge that, try to understand why that is the case, and do work to promote access to the institution and success for colleagues who are here. The same is true for Indigenous professors at McGill.

TJ: People with disabilities are another group that is significantly underrepresented within the McGill workforce, among support and admin staff as well as within the academic complement.  Some examples of strategies we can use to reduce this gap include ensuring a streamlined and comprehensive mechanism for job applicants and employees seeking workplace accommodations; education to raise awareness of disability rights and prevent and address direct and indirect discrimination on campus; and measures aimed at enhancing access by dismantling physical barriers to our buildings and properties.

What do you say to those people who read “employment equity” and think “quotas”?

AC: We often hear that employment equity strategies are synonymous with affirmative action, quotas or positive discrimination. It is important for people to understand that this is not at all what the policy at McGill endorses or permits.

Quotas would be reserving a set number of spots for candidates of a particular identity group. Affirmative action would be discriminating positively in favour of people from underrepresented groups. This is not what we do at McGill.

In policy and in practice McGill tries to recruit as widely as possible so that we have a diverse a pool to choose from for every job opportunity that comes up whether it is academic or not.

The goals are to populate the applicant pool in a way that is equitable and proactive. It’s a question of taking initiative rather than just letting people come to you. In recruiting new employees, we have to be proactive, strategic and ambitious.

TJ:  Once we have an excellent and diverse pool of applicants, we have to ensure that we are taking steps to address possible bias in the review process.  This means, among other things, becoming aware of how bias can impact our assessment of candidates, and taking steps to ensure that we are evaluating candidates based on actual job requirements, not on whether we feel (unconsciously or not) an affinity towards them. This means working intentionally to avoid common pitfalls like giving preference to candidates whose profile is similar to our own, and being open to questioning what we think we know about a field, method of research, or non-traditional career trajectory.

It sounds like a lot of work compared to just posting a job opening and waiting for applicants.

TJ: There is work involved, but ultimately it is work that is worth it – it makes us a better institution, and all of our lives are enriched by it.

There is a common misconception that underrepresentation in our workforce is a result of past discrimination. According to this perspective, workforce representation will increase gradually on its own without deliberate effort.

On the other hand, when you look at McGill workforce data between 2008 and 2015, a time when the institution was implementing minimal strategies around Employment Equity, we see that the needle was flat: the numbers of designated group members in our workforce did not increase. So, there was little-to-no increase among racialized or Indigenous employees, nor among employees with disabilities during this period, despite significant underrepresentation of these groups within the workforce. And the number of women academics increased during this period, but only slightly.

In reality, ensuring we have a diverse and representative workforce takes dedicated work and resources. It takes effort not just from central administration or from Human Resources, but from everyone across the University, regardless of their position, department or unit.  We need to read and apply research and be strategic about our hiring and retention practices if we want to succeed.

So, with deliberate action, positive change happens, and we will be a better University for it.

People sometimes politicize issues of employment equity, don’t they?

AC: Sometimes they do, yes. But at McGill, issues of equity and diversity are not about left-wing, right-wing ideologies. It is in line with best practices in all research-intensive universities.

The way in which our Employment Equity Policy has been imagined, crafted and rolled out is based on research. We know that people do better in an environment that is diverse and that brings to gather people with varied experiences, ideas and perspectives.

So how does the employment equity work when hiring new personnel?

AC: Shortlists for academic searches have to be approved by the Provost’s Office. Either Tynan or I look at all shortlists formed by search committees to make sure they include at least one member of an equity-designated group. If that is not the case, the department has to provide a credible justification.

In cases where you have two excellent candidates, both of whom meet the qualifications for the position, the priority should go to the candidate from the least-represented group. For example, if you have a man and a woman applying for a position in a STEMM field and they are both equally capable in the committee’s eyes, then the offer should first go to the female candidate, being that women are underrepresented in that field.

Is there a timeframe for the Survey and what kind of response rate are you looking for?

TJ: The survey is ongoing. We have an obligation to have at least an 80 percent response rate according to provincial employment equity legislation, and we have an internal target to meet that goal by May 2019, which is the next time we will be reporting to Senate on employment equity at McGill.

What has the response rate been thus far?

TJ: We are at a 45 per cent response rate overall but we’ve hit over 50 percent for tenure-track faculty and over 60 percent for employees who are part of MUNACA and MUNASA. We are not there yet, but we are getting there.

Employment equity extends beyond hiring policies, doesn’t it?

AC: Absolutely. It’s one thing to have processes to ensure that there is good representation from diverse groups, but if individuals arrive as employees and the climate is not welcoming, it can be isolating and alienating. That isn’t conducive to supporting a person’s success or to retaining them. Therefore, our goal is to craft an environment that celebrates the excellence that is achieved through diversity.

How does this kind of initiative impact McGill’s student body?

AC: A monolithic workforce would not be helpful to our students. McGill has an extremely diverse student population. Our students should see themselves reflected in the professors who teach them, and in the staff who deliver services within our University.

Learn more about the Employment Equity Survey online. Better yet, take the Survey now.








Fossils, cow brains, Skittles and owls on the menu for 24 Hours of Science

jeu, 05/10/2018 - 15:54

People can get up close and personal with live owls at the Redpath Museum as part of the 24 Hours of Science.

By McGill Reporter Staff

Albert Einstein once said “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”

People who are curious about science can participate in four public events at McGill campus starting Friday, May 11, and ending Sunday, May 13. It’s all part of  the province-wide 24 Hours of Science event.

The 13th edition of 24 Hours of Science will see some 300 science activities in 17 regions across Quebec, reaching between 30,000 to 40,000 people of all ages.

24 Hours of Science is an initiative of “Science pour tous,” a Quebec non-profit which brings together 250 organizations in technology and innovation, including museums, associations, and science-based organizations. “Science pour tous” is funded by the Ministère de l’Économie de la Science et de l’Innovation du Québec, Quebec’s Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation.

On top of the scheduled activities, the event has seen its share of unplanned, but educational, twists. “A new species of insect was discovered during one of our activities,” says Perrine Poisson, the Coordinator of 24 Hours of Science. “A cardiac surgeon was supposed to give a tour of the operating room. A patient arrived unexpectedly in emergency and gave her consent, so participants watched her operation from the student’s observation room while the surgeon explained the procedure step by step. 24 Hours of Science is full of surprises.”

Once again, McGill is taking part in 24 Hours of Science. Please note that people should follow the link and register for each event. 

  • Find out more about the emerald ash borer and what the City of Montreal is doing to protect the urban forest on Mount Royal on Friday at lunch at A Walk and Talk with Les Amis de la Montagne.
  • Get up close and personal with live owls on Saturday afternoon during Birds of Prey Day at the Redpath Museum
  • Also on Saturday, don your lab coat and take part in exciting experiments at Discover Chemistry
  • Locate fossils and minerals in surprising and secret places in downtown Montreal on Sunday afternoon on the The Fossil Walk

There are also 24 Hours of Science presentations in Montreal schools, the fruit of a collaboration between BrainReach, and the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music (CRBLM), both based at McGill.

Eighteen McGill student volunteers will give workshops on language and music in six Montreal public schools using the BrainReach workshop template.

BrainReach/ Mission: Cerveau is an award-winning, not-for-profit, community outreach program managed by graduate students in the Integrated Program in Neuroscience that provides fun, interactive neuroscience-based workshops to young students at the elementary (Grade 4) and high school (Secondary 3) level in under-resourced neighbourhoods around Montreal.

The Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music – CRBLM – is a strategic research group with an interdisciplinary focus on language, music, and their intersection, and includes members from all four Montreal universities.

“In our BrainReach workshops we use cow brains, microscopes, and even Skittles to talk to students about the science of the brain,” says Anastasia Sares, a PhD candidate with CRBLM and this year’s president of BrainReach’s Elementary Division.  “The idea is to make science fun and accessible using the interactive BrainReach teaching model we have created. The kids come up with fun and interesting questions which we try to answer – such as  “Are there bones in the brain?” and “Why is it so squishy?”


Top business startups celebrated at annual Dobson Cup gala

jeu, 05/10/2018 - 12:27

This year, 84 teams competed in the Dobson Cup Semi-Finals round with the top 40 teams moving forward into the Finals.

On April 5, the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship hosted the McGill Dobson Cup 2018 gala, during which this year’s winners were announced. Sponsored by National Bank, the lively event was the culmination of another banner year for the Dobson Cup, McGill’s flagship annual startup competition. This year, 84 teams competed in the Semi-Finals round with the top 40 teams moving forward into the Finals on March 28, 2018.

Countless hours of preparation by the teams and two rounds of pitching later, the cream of the crop were celebrated and rewarded with over $100,000 in seed funding being awarded to the most deserving and promising projects across four tracks: Social Enterprise, Health Sciences, Small & Medium Enterprise, and Innovation Driven Enterprise.

Coming in for the top spot in the Social Enterprise track and representing the Faculty of Arts was Abil Design Inc., a company that helps businesses create accessible digital experiences and reach new audiences. Using a consultancy approach, Abil Design audits a company’s digital presence and identifies gaps that people living with disabilities might encounter while using their digital platform.

In the Health Sciences track, CURA Therapeutics took home the first-place prize. CURA Therapeutics, which represented the Faculties of Medicine and Engineering, is developing a cure for pancreatic cancer with their novel immunotherapy technology.

Speaking on her team’s journey of competing in the Dobson Cup, Claudia Penafuerte, one of CURA’s three co-founders said, “It has been great, as well as challenging especially for me coming from a pure science background with no previous experience in business or as an entrepreneur. Thanks to the Lean Startup Program, which prepared us for the competition, I discovered many new concepts and principles that are necessary to comprehend for a new startup to develop and progress.”

The Small & Medium Enterprise track was topped by ENTR, representing Desautels, a company that facilitates the booking and rental of unique venues for all types of events. Using a very similar approach to Airbnb, ENTR aims to simplify the often arduous task of securing a beautiful and prime location for an event by helping users to discover amazing spaces.

CEO and Co-Founder Marc-Antoine Bonin says that the business initially began as a marketplace for office space rentals. However, after launching a beta version of their platform in September 2017, they realized that their greatest demand was for event spaces, hence their decision to place their focus in this niche.

First place in the Innovation Driven Enterprise track was awarded to UltraSense from the Faculty of Engineering. Ultrasense looks to improve water quality monitoring systems with low-cost, high-precision sensors realized with integrated graphene technology.

The Utlrasense team was also the delighted recipient of the McGill EngInE Prize from the Faculty of Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub. The McGill EngInE focuses on stimulating technologically based innovation and entrepreneurship at McGill in collaboration with the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship and the Office of Innovation and Partnerships.

The coveted Dobson Cup

Over and above the four main prizes of the day, there were various other awardees.

Opportutoring, representing the Faculty of Arts and the Desautels Faculty of Management was among the winners, taking home both the Murdoch Family Initiative Prize and the Avmor Prize for Social Responsibility. Opportutoring provides refugees with free one-to-one online English tutoring to open up their opportunities in their country of relocation.

Scooping the Food and Agribusiness Convergent Innovation Prize was reMIXed, a startup that has transformed the concept of traditional trail mixes by introducing dehydrated beans and re-purposed fruit. The team received this prize, which is awarded under a partnership between the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (FAES) and the McGill Centre for the Convergence of Health and Economics (MCCHE). This year, Trussbridge Investments joined FAES and MCCHE in awarding the prize.

On the nature of startup business life, Jamie Lee, one of the two co-founders of the company says, “We learned how fast-paced this community is, and we love it. The other thing is that the McGill Dobson Cup and the entrepreneurial community is a very supportive ecosystem that has the capacity to guide you through this fast-paced environment.”

Finally, the Grit Prize, which recognizes a team that has demonstrated outstanding dedication towards establishing their business venture, was awarded to Haven Hub. With its mission to improve health outcomes radically, Haven Hub works towards expanding and distributing integrative medicine and personalized health services widely.

Reflecting on this year’s event, Renjie Butalid, Associate Director for the McGill Dobson Centre, said, “For 2018, we’re delighted to see an increase in participation from alumni as judges in the Semi-Finals and Finals, coming from as far away as San Francisco, London, Toronto, Boston and New York City. The McGill Dobson Cup contributes greatly to building a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation at McGill – it takes an entire ecosystem of people and organizations connected with the university to contribute and play a role. We’re very grateful for continued alumni support.”

Find out more about the McGill Dobson Cup 2018, including a video of the awards gala, on the Dobson Chronicles blog.


Dr. Alice Benjamin: Grateful patients give birth to new fund

mer, 05/09/2018 - 15:40

Dr. Alice Benjamin with pictures of just a few of the thousands of children she’s helped bring into this world. / Photo: Owen Egan and Joni Dufour

By Philip Fine

Dr. Alice Benjamin, Associate Professor, Obstetrics & Gynecology, has delivered tens of thousands of babies, inspired decades of McGill residents, and set up antenatal clinics for diabetic and renal patients that significantly reduce stillbirths and miscarriages. At 72, the maternal-fetal medicine specialist is still hard at work, turning high-risk pregnancies into textbook deliveries. But if someone compliments her on her achievements, she redirects. Praise, she feels, should be given to her peers in the developing world.

“Look at those doctors there with so little, yet they can manage so much. How can they do that? And how can I translate that here?” she asks in her usual soft-spoken manner.

For Benjamin, who has always encouraged her residents to volunteer in the developing world, there is a lot to be learned from exposure to this kind of resourcefulness.

It is in support of this educational philosophy, with its emphasis on appreciating what you have and making do, that a group of Benjamin’s grateful former patients, along with their families and friends, have come together to launch a two-stage campaign in support of McGill Global Health Programs (GHP) and the McGill Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

In the first stage of the campaign, the Dr. Alice Benjamin Fund will provide recipients with an opportunity to witness maternal health care as it’s practiced in low-resource settings. The hope is that in working alongside their counterparts in developing countries, the McGillians will also impart valuable knowledge and skills. Although preference will be given to medical residents, the award will also be open to undergraduate students, graduate students and fellows of any McGill Faculty of Medicine program or school.

Calm under pressure

It is important to realize how innovative those in developing countries can be, says Dr. Madhukar Pai, Director, GHP, Associate Director, McGill International TB Centre, and Canada Research Chair in Translational Epidemiology & Global Health. He gives the example of Rwanda finding success through health workers with rudimentary training. “They give iron supplements, check on the baby’s growth and make sure there are no danger signs such as high blood pressure.” If they see red flags, they refer the woman to a higher level of care.

At the same time, the challenges are legion. “Maternal mortality is shockingly common in many countries. We are losing 300,000 moms during pregnancy and childbirth every year, mostly in the poorest countries,” says Pai.

“Trying to save those moms in those countries is one of the best ways to honour the legacy of Dr. Benjamin,” says Pai, whose professional and personal experiences feed his commitment. His daughter Annika was born three weeks early and at a low birth weight. She was delivered by Benjamin and is now a healthy 10-year-old girl.

His wife, Dr. Nitika Pant Pai, Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, describes some further complications, including an earlier miscarriage, high blood pressure, a placental abruption and the umbilical cord wrapped around the baby’s neck. She remembers Benjamin’s calm approach during the delivery and pure joy when the baby was born.

Benjamin’s patients talk of her love for her patients. “I felt like she was my second mother,” says Nitika.

Alexia Calvillo, whose daughters Athena and Olivia were both delivered by Benjamin, also felt that care. Just days after giving birth to her second child, she received a cancer diagnosis and had to spend a week in the hospital without her infant and toddler. “As soon as she found out I was admitted, she came to see me. If she had a break in her schedule, she would make her way over to the oncology wing and she would see me every day,” says Calvillo, the wife of former Montreal Alouettes quarterback Anthony Calvillo.

Anthony also saw that same care, during office visits. “It wasn’t ‘Okay, gotta get to the next patient.’ You knew you were going to be in the waiting room for a while, but when you got into that room she was going to give you her full attention and be genuine about it.”

Benjamin recalls that as a 16-year-old student in South India, she came across a female doctor treating an older man. She was struck by both the confidence and empathy shown by this young doctor and the effect on the patient. “All of a sudden, the trust came on to his face,” she says. “I said this is a profession I want to be in.”

She attended medical school in Delhi before moving to Toronto to specialize in internal medicine at Women’s College Hospital. “I liked internal medicine a lot,” she says. She enjoyed the debates and the discussions, as well as listing symptoms and narrowing things down to get closer to the cause. Her supervisors there convinced her to enter obstetrics, where she was quickly accepted.

That was 1973. Just a few months before she was to start, her late husband, who had been working for the National Research Council, was transferred to Montreal. But, in Montreal, the OB/GYN residents at the Royal Victoria Hospital had already been chosen. Undeterred, she went to see the head of the department. He confirmed there was no space for her, however, he added, there was one new hire who had been wavering. That person ended up turning down the position and Benjamin got in.

The old Royal Vic would become a special place for her. “This hospital made me who I am,” she says.

Inspirational educator

She would have a profound influence on many during those years at the Vic. One of them was Armand Aalamian, MDCM’88, PGME’90. “There are a few people, if you’re fortunate, who will influence your career and your life, and, for me, Alice Benjamin is that person. She both inspired and lit the flame for being a medical educator,” says Aalamian, Associate Dean, Postgraduate Medical Education (PGME), who worked with Benjamin as a resident in 1989, as well as the previous three years as a medical student.

“She always approached every single high-risk pregnancy from a meticulous, compassionate and skilled angle,” says Aalamian. “She’d say we need to learn about the illness, about the disease. She encouraged us to do more research, that we always be on top of things and know the literature.”

She opened her own practice in 1990. There, she would see about 100 women a week, all with the help of her longtime receptionist Palma Campagnolo. Over time, thousands of baby pictures came to adorn her office walls.

In 2017, Lorne Lieberman, BA’94, voiced the sentiment felt by so many parents of those thousands of babies: “How can we as a community give back to her?” asked the father of four, three of whom were delivered by Benjamin. His answer came during a meeting with David Eidelman, MDCM ’79, Vice-Principal (Health Affairs) and Dean, Faculty of Medicine, when Eidelman encouraged him to form a committee with other families who had been touched by Benjamin’s work.

The fund’s committee now numbers 13 and has already raised more than $100,000 towards an initial million-dollar goal. If this target is reached, it will provide exchanges for Faculty residents to volunteer abroad and foreign residents to visit McGill. It will also bring guest speakers for grand rounds and lecture series in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology. In its second stage, the campaign will support even more enriched educational and research opportunities in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology such as post-doctoral fellows, seed grants for faculty working in maternal and women’s health, and possibly even a chair in maternal and women’s health.

“Dr. Benjamin has been an excellent educator to our trainees for many decades,” says Dr. Togas Tulandi, Professor and Chair, McGill Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, the Milton Leong Chair in Reproductive Medicine, and Chief of the departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the McGill University Health Centre. Benjamin, he says, is an advocate for women’s health, and the fund in her name will recognize this.

As Benjamin continues to threaten retirement, her patients and their families will continue to sing her praises, for what Lieberman calls her David Copperfield skills such as the ability to zero in on a fetal heartbeat. “When she puts on that heart monitor, it’s bang on,” he marvels. In the meantime, the petite obstetrician will deflect the compliments as she goes about delivering babies and appreciating their miracle.

Learn more about the Dr. Alice Benjamin Fund.


A new molecular target identified in depression

mar, 05/08/2018 - 14:35

New treatment approach could give quicker response times

Source: McGill Media Relations

The discovery of a new mechanism involved in depression – and a way to target it with a drug as effective as classical antidepressants – provides new understanding of this illness and could pave the way for treatments with fewer side effects.

In a study published in Nature Medicine, a team of scientists at McGill and France’s Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (INSERM) examined the biological and molecular mechanisms at play in neurons during treatment with a classical antidepressant.

Conducted simultaneously in humans and mice, the research by Bruno Giros, professor in the Department of Psychiatry, and Eléni Tzavara, Director of Research at INSERM, was designed to show how antidepressants act on two neurotransmitters known to influence mood: serotonin and norepinephrine.

When these neurotransmitters come in contact with receptors located on the surface of neurons, they trigger a series of signalling cascades inside the cell. Thus, much as in a relay race, various molecules pass on instructions, to be delivered to the nucleus, telling it to activate or inactivate the expression of genes involved in various biological functions. Because antidepressants act directly on two multifunctional neurotransmitters, they are accompanied by a number of adverse effects.

In their study, the researchers show that in mice, one can target a single runner in this relay race, Elk-1, a molecule that steps in for the last lap of the race and that appears to be directly involved in depressive disorders.

“What’s interesting and rather new is that we have shown the advantage of targeting signalling modules (a runner) rather than the entire pathway,” explains Giros, who is also a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute (CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal). “This surgical approach should enable us to avoid the adverse effects of classical antidepressants.”

Towards better and faster treatment?

For about a third of patients suffering from major depressive disorder, the path to healing can prove long because physicians have to find, by trial and error, the appropriate drug and dosage to treat them. Worse still, in approximately 33% of patients, none of the existing drugs have any effect.

“The drug we’ve tested could also constitute a treatment with fewer failures,” says Giros. “Classic antidepressants take up to three weeks to have an effect and this new approach could give quicker response times.”

This potential new drug, which is protected by a patent, was developed by Melkin Pharmaceuticals, a biotech co-founded by Giros.

Giros’s research has further indicated  that  Elk-1 shows promise as a therapeutic biomarker for determining which patients are more likely to respond to treatments.

Read the study online.

Hanadi Sleiman, C.J. Li awarded Killam Research Fellowships

mar, 05/08/2018 - 10:30

McGill chemistry professors Hanadi Sleiman and Chao-Jun Li

Projects aim to solve problems of drug delivery in cancer treatment, find sustainable raw materials for chemical products 

By McGill Reporter Satff

McGill chemistry professors Hanadi Sleiman and Chao-Jun Li are among the six recipients of this year’s Killam Research Fellowships. The two-year fellowships, awarded to exceptional researchers working on groundbreaking projects of broad significance, are valued at $70,000 a year.

“This year’s exceptional Killam Prize and Research Fellowship recipients have demonstrated that persistent hard work leads to ground-breaking discoveries that improve not only our depth of knowledge as a collective, but the quality of life of humanity,” said Simon Brault, OC, OQ Director and CEO, Canada Council for the Arts. “These remarkable scholars whose sustained leadership, commitment to curiosity, and originality of thought will continue to inspire students and colleagues alike, undoubtedly furthering even more advancements in their fields and strengthening the generations to come.”

Prof. Sleiman’s project, DNA Nanostructures for Cancer Therapy and Imaging, will focus on treatment of triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive cancer type for which there are no FDA-approved targeted therapies. The aim is to develop structures made from the molecule DNA that deliver chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells without entering normal cells. These structures are biodegradable, non-toxic and designed to respond selectively to tumours. During her two-year fellowship, Sleiman will work to optimize these drug-delivery vehicles to eliminate the toxic side-effects of cancer chemotherapy, bypass drug resistance, and dramatically improve the quality of patients’ lives.

Prof. Li’s project aims to find sustainable raw materials for chemical products. As fossil resources dwindle, cheap and abundant biomass waste from agriculture, forest, and seafood industries could potentially provide alternative feedstocks for chemical products. The main obstacle is the lack of broadly applicable and efficient chemical tools to transform highly functionalized biomass-based molecules directly and selectively.  During his two-year fellowship, Prof. Li will seek to develop biomass-based feedstocks as widely applicable substitutes for conventional organometallic reagents.

The annual Killam Prizes and Fellowships are distributed by the Canada Council for the Arts. See this year’s full list of recipients online.

Early HIV treatment key to avoiding brain atrophy

mar, 05/08/2018 - 10:12

New study underlines importance of early screening and antiretroviral therapy

By Shawn Hayward, Communications Office of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital

While the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has largely dropped from news headlines since the 1990s, at the end of 2016 there were 36.7 million people living with the infection, and of those only 53 per cent had access to treatment. A new study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases on April 24, underscores the neurological consequences of exposure to HIV without antiretroviral therapy.

Scientists have known for some time that HIV-infection causes reduced volume and cortical thickness in some regions of the brain, but it was unclear when these changes begin and what role combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) plays in stopping or slowing its progression. To answer these questions, researchers from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (The Neuro) of McGill University, in collaboration with researchers from University of Washington St. Louis and Yale University, analyzed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from 65 patients at the University of California San Francisco who had been infected less than one year before.

They compared the MRI data to that of 19 HIV-negative participants and 16 HIV-positive patients who had been infected for at least three years. The researchers found that the longer the duration of untreated infection, the greater the volume loss and cortical thinning in several brain regions. Once cART treatment began, the volume changes in these regions stopped, and cortical thickness increased slightly in the frontal and temporal lobe.

These results reinforce the need for early detection of HIV and delivery of cART as soon as possible to avoid neurological damage. HIV-infection can lead to memory loss, dementia later in life, and balance and vision problems, among other symptoms. Early screening and antiretroviral therapy can stop these symptoms before they occur, or stop their progression in patients who haven’t received fast enough treatment.

“There have been few longitudinal structural neuroimaging studies in early HIV infection, and none that have used such sensitive analysis methods in a relatively large sample,” says Ryan Sanford, a PhD candidate at The Neuro in the lab of Louis Collins and the study’s first author. “The findings make the neurological case for early treatment initiation, and sends a hopeful message to people living with HIV that starting and adhering to cART may protect the brain from further injury.”

“It also helps focus the search for possible mechanisms of brain injury in this condition, pointing towards injury that occurs principally during untreated infection. This opens the door to novel treatments focused on potentially reversing these observed structural changes.”

New faculty appointments and promotions

ven, 05/04/2018 - 14:38

Top row, l to r: Maya Saleh, Richard Leask, Susan Bartlett and Brent Richards. Bottom row, l to r: Laila Parsons, Peter Lakatos, Michael Wagner and Faith Wallis.

By McGill Reporter Staff

During the closed session of its Thursday, April 26, 2018, McGill’s Board of Governors approved the promotion of eight Associate Professors to the rank of Full Professor, as well as the appointments of one new Associate Professor with Tenure and two Full Professors with Tenure.

The appointments were made on the recommendation of the Statutory Selection Committee.

The following Associate Professors were promoted to Full Professor in recognition of their teaching and research excellence:

  • Susan Bartlett (Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine).
  • Brent Richards (Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine)
  • Peter Lakatos (Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine) (Clinical)
  • Richard Leask (Department of Chemical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering)
  • Laila Parsons (Departments of History & Classical Studies and Islamic Studies, Faculty of Arts)
  • Maya Saleh (Department of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine)
  • Michael Wagner (Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Arts)
  • Faith Wallis (Departments of History & Classical Studies and Social Studies of Medicine, Faculty of Arts)

The eight promotions are effective May 1, 2018.

Three new professors will be joining McGill in the coming months. All three have been recruited from outside Canada.

On July 1, Michael MacKenzie will become the newest Full Professor with Tenure of the Faculty of Arts’ School of Social Work. Prof. MacKenzie holds a Joint PhD in Social Work and Developmental Psychology. His research focuses on infant-parent relationship dynamics, including social and biological transactions in developmental psychopathology, the causes and outcomes of harsh parenting and maltreatment, foster care placement trajectories, and child welfare policy. He is currently an Associate Professor at Rutgers University.

On August 1, Nicholas J. Reo will join the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Arts, as an Associate Professor with Tenure.  Prof. Reo is currently an Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College. His research focuses on Indigenous environmental stewardship, Indigenous knowledge systems, and their interaction with the environment. He has served as Co-Director of Michigan’s Tribes Extension Program, and as Acting Director of the Native American Institute at Michigan State University.

As previously reported, Jennifer Welsh will be joining the Faculty of Arts’ Department of Political Science and the new Max Bell School of Public Policy as the Canada 150 Chair in Global Governance and Security. The Board of Governors has also approved her appointment as Full Professor with Tenure. Prof. Welsh is a world-renowned scholar in international relations, Canadian foreign policy, and human security. She is currently Chair and Professor of international relations at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Her appointment begins on January 1, 2019.

Prof. Welsh is one of two Canada 150 Chairs who will be joining McGill. The Board approved the appointment of the other incoming C150 Chair, cosmologist Jonathan Sievers, in December 2017. The Canada 150 Research Chairs Program, created in celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, aims to attract top-tier, internationally based researchers and scholars whose accomplishments have made a major impact in their fields.


Exercise to change the brain

jeu, 05/03/2018 - 14:45

L to r: Dr. Marc Roig, Parkinson’s patient Eileen Cortina and research assistant Jean-François Nepveu.

Source: Parkinson’s Canada with files by Jason Clement

For someone with Parkinson’s disease (PD), the simple desire to grasp a glass of water can become an insurmountable task, made impossible by the tremors in their hand or arm. Finding strategies to improve these movement impairments is one of the major goals of rehabilitating people with Parkinson’s disease.

At McGill, Dr. Marc Roig, an assistant professor in the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy (SPOT), is studying the effects of using high-intensity exercise to stimulate the brain’s ability to learn and change with repeated experiences.

Dr. Roig and his team are working with people who have Parkinson’s disease, to see if they can improve their ability to move and to complete tasks like grabbing an object. The team is using high-intensity cardiovascular exercise to provoke changes in the brain that make it easier to train itself to relearn motor tasks.

“One of the main problems with people with Parkinson’s is they lose their ability to do very simple motor tasks,” says Dr. Roig, a neuroscientist. “We are trying to understand why this happens and find interventions to improve that.”

Dr. Roig believes exercise may be the key to triggering the brain’s ability to change and to open a window to improve motor learning. His current study is using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, a form of non-invasive brain stimulation that moves a magnetic coil over the skull, to map the areas of the brain he wants to measure. By attaching electrodes to the muscles of the hand and then moving the magnetic coil until the fingers move, his team is able to map the changes in the brain that occur before and after intense exercise, and to record changes in the brain activity of people with Parkinson’s who are on medication and those who are not on medication.

After they exercise, study participants are asked to complete a task involving the application of force in a computer game, to measure whether the exercise and the burst of brain chemicals it stimulates also improves their motor ability.

Most people with Parkinson’s disease eventually take a synthetic form of dopamine, called levodopa, to replace the levels of this brain signalling chemical that Parkinson’s depletes. Roig is also testing his theory that the people with Parkinson’s will need their medication to take advantage of the improvements exercise can produce.

“With the new information, we can better understand how exercise interacts with dopamine and with motor learning,” he says.

His goal is to use that information to create new interventions during rehabilitation, and to explore the response of different areas of the brain. “If we can show that exercise interacts positively with medication, the next step would be to establish whether coupling exercise with medication has long-term benefits for people with PD,” explains Dr. Roig. “This could be accomplished by studying the long term effects of exercise and medication taken together on the motor and cognitive alterations caused by the disease.”

Dr. Roig notes that the study is going well, though they are in need of additional participants in order to complete the study. “To date, we have tested 19 people with PD. We predicted that we would need 48 people to finalize the study.”

Dr. Roig and his team are looking for people with PD aged 45 to 80, who would be willing to travel to his lab on three occasions, with a total time commitment of five to six hours. “On the first visit, we measure their cardiorespiratory fitness with an exercise test,” explains Dr. Roig. “This is important to assess their suitability for the study but also to know how fit they are. On the second visit, we ask them to practice a motor task followed by 15 minutes of exercise or rest. We also measure changes in their brain activity using a non-invasive brain stimulation technique, which is completely safe and painless. We ask them to return 48 hours later for a short third visit to assess their capacity to remember the task that they practiced on the second visit. We provide a generous compensation that covers for parking and transportation expenses.”

For her part Eileen Cortina recognizes the value in participating in this study. “I find it so important to participate in studies for Parkinson’s because even though we are always too young to be diagnosed, we are never too old to hope for a cure,” she says. “I hope that they find a solution to help people with the dexterity part of this disease as this is what bothers me most at this time, even more than the fatigue, pain and other symptoms.”

“The final goal is to try to improve the quality of life of these people, but to do that you need to understand the mechanisms of the disease,” says Dr. Roig.

Eventually, his work may lead to new techniques and new rehabilitative interventions that can help people with Parkinson’s use exercise to train their brains to complete the simple tasks of everyday life that come so easily to others without this disease.

If you or someone you know would be interested in participating in this study, contact Dr. Roig at (515) 415-8353 or marc.roigpull@mcgill.ca.