A new paradigm in medicine

“Imagine walking around with your own DNA sequence saved as a file in your Blackberry,” explains Dr. Stephen Scherer. “We’re not far from that right now. This is a remarkable time in the history of genetic research. It would be a new paradigm in medicine — personalized genomics.”

Dr. Scherer is the Director of the Centre for Applied Genomics at the University of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. He’s coming to Charlottetown this Thursday, October 1, to deliver the 2009 Gairdner Lecture at UPEI.

“DNA is the ultimate form of information,” says Dr. Scherer. “All at once, it tells us about your past, present, and future. Contained within this sequence is your genetic history — it’s like taking all of your ancestors with you wherever you go. And it contains information about diseases and disorders you may not develop until very late in life. This is powerful information.”

Dr. Scherer says that with this knowledge, we can take preventative steps to help prevent some of these future ailments before we even have them.

“Right now, we don’t know we have one of these conditions until we start showing symptoms. And so we treat the symptoms. What if you knew from birth that you were genetically disposed to develop diabetes? You could make lifestyle choices early in life that could help avoid it.”

Dr. Scherer says the rapid rate of technology and understanding brings with it a number of questions— many of them ethical.

“What if you had your genetic map and it told you something you didn’t want to hear? What if you learned you would develop a disease for which we have no cure or treatment?”

The title of Dr. Scherer’s lecture is “What you are and who you are in the era of genome projects.

“What you are is your innate being — your genomic sequence,” explains Dr. Scherer. “Who you are is an accumulation of the influences in your life. It’s the relationship between the who and what that makes up the whole person. That’s part of what I’ll be focusing on in my talk.”

The Gairdner Faculty Lecture at UPEI is this Thursday, October 1, in the Regis and Joan Duffy Research Centre Lecture Theatre.   It begins at 3 p.m., and is open to the public.

Image created by WEB2DNA.

Ten years in your brain

“We know generally what happens inside the brain when a human or animal with Epilepsy experiences a seizure,” explains Dr. Andy Tasker, Professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Director of the Atlantic Centre for Comparative Biomedical Research at the Atlantic Veterinary College.

“We also know it’s often caused by an earlier trauma that happens at about the time of birth. What we don’t really know much about is what happens during the period between the initial trauma and the first noticeable symptoms of Epilepsy.”

Tasker will make a public presentation this week summing up more than 10 years of research in this area, entitled Silence before the Storm: Understanding Epileptogenesis.

Healthy brain: Note the focused pathway of neurons (red dots)Healthy brain: Note the focused pathway of neurons (red dots)

“Epilepsy is a chronic neurological condition that affects humans, dogs, and other species,” says Tasker. It’s usually diagnosed by the occurrence of recurrent seizures that may or may not manifest as convulsions.”

Tasker explains these seizures are often the visible endpoint of a neurodegenerative process that began much earlier in life — that point of trauma at or near the time of birth. The period between the initiating event and the occurrence of noticeable seizures is known as epileptogenesis.

“In a lab environment, we know if we stimulate the adult brain using high doses of certain compounds, it causes seizures in rats,” says Tasker. “We wanted to know what happens if we give low doses of the same compounds early in life. Nothing happened at the time of injection. But, when those rats became adults, they started showing signs of abnormal behavior — not convulsions, but behaviour and changes in brain chemistry consistent with neurodegenerative conditions such as Epilepsy.”

Epileptic brain: Note scattered pathway of neuronsEpileptic brain: Note scattered pathway of neurons

The technique and the resulting model pioneered by Tasker and his team have resulted in two US patents and numerous publications.

“Right now we have medications that can treat the symptoms of Epilepsy. But our ultimate goal is to prevent, rather than treat these disorders. Before we can do that, we have to understand what is happening before seizures appear — during epileptogenesis.”

Tasker’s seminar is Friday, September 25, at 3 p.m. in the AVC Faculty Lounge.

UPEI researchers in the news, part four

UPEI researchers have helped our world understand a range of phenomena over the years, from how singing can be beneficial to our health and well-being, to how light and sound can help detect and treat cancer. Last week, we reassured the world that Kanye West’s outburst at the MTV Music Video Awards isn’t evidence of a breakdown in global civility.

If you missed the story (and we’d forgive you if you did), rapper Kanye West stormed the stage while country singer Taylor Swift accepted the award for best female video. West grabbed the microphone and announced the award should go to a different artist – an act that had many in the media asking whether our culture has experienced some sort of civility meltdown.

Columnist Maggie Marwah, writing in the Wednesday, September 16 edition of the Chronicle Herald, quotes UPEI sociologist Benet Davetian’s new book, Civility: a Cultural History, in her argument against that theory.

“I have defined courtesy and civility as the extent to which citizens of a given culture speak and act in ways that demonstrate a caring for the welfare of others as well as the welfare of the culture they share in common.”

Using Davetian’s definition, Marwah says the important part of the incident wasn’t the outburst itself, but our collective response to it. We, as a culture, pointed to this incident and said, “That isn’t right.”

Read the whole article here.

Photo credit.

Want to see my picture of Prince Edward Island?

There’s a Kids in the Hall comedy sketch from the mid-1990s that begins with a police officer leaning against his cruiser. He’s approached by a second officer.

“Partner, you want to see a picture of my trip to Europe?”

It turns out to be the only photo he has of the trip (he took another, but it didn’t turn out). It seems absurd to let one photograph tell the story of an entire vacation. But then again, what’s a postcard? A single image tasked with summing up the experience of a certain place.

“It’s remarkable how little that image has changed over the years for Prince Edward Island,” says Dr. Edward MacDonald, associate professor of History at UPEI. He’s working with Dr. Alan MacEachern at the University of Western Ontario on a book about the history of tourism on Prince Edward Island.

Courtesy of Doug Murray, Tourism P.E.I.Courtesy of Doug Murray, Tourism P.E.I.

“Here’s a postcard from the early 1900s,” says MacDonald, calling up a black-and-white photograph on his computer. “A beautifully sunny day at the beach with your friends. Note the modest bathing suits,” he jokes. “And here’s one from the mid-1960s,” he says, bringing up a colourful shot. “A beautifully sunny day the beach with your friends. The only difference is the skimpier bathing suits.”

Department of Tourist Development Guide c. 1965: Courtesy of Colin MacIntyreDepartment of Tourist Development Guide c. 1965: Courtesy of Colin MacIntyre

MacDonald says tourists started coming to the Island in the 1860s. These were wealthy people who could afford to travel. The government took a more active role in promoting tourism after the Second World War, when more people started earning vacation from their jobs.

It’s difficult to write a history of tourism on the Island without coming across a familiar literary redhead.

“But the remarkable thing,” explains MacDonald, “is not that people come here just to experience Anne. They came for that, for sure, but they also came to see the landscape Lucy Maud Montgomery describes in her writing. It’s a very compelling image, and consistent with what we’ve always promoted ourselves as — pastoral farmland, pristine beaches, kindly people.”

MacDonald points out that, despite the image, important things have changed. At the turn of the last century, more than 16,000 farms helped create the patchwork quilt that made the Island’s unique landscape.

“Today, we have about 1,400 farms. Is the tourism industry going to pay farmers to maintain that famous landscape? Because that’s still the image we sell. But then,” laughs MacDonald, “I’m a historian, and that’s more of a business question, isn’t it?”

Snapshots of transitions

Kate Tilliczek drops a printed report on her desk with a thud.  It's three centimetres thick, and covers the first two years of a three-year research project she's working on for the Ontario Ministry of Education

“The final report will be twice as thick,” explains Tilleczek with a sly grin. She’s the Canada Research Chair in Child/Youth Cultures and Transitions and an associate professor of education at UPEI. Tilleczek and her team of researchers based at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and at Laurentian University  are following a group of students from across Ontario as they make the often bumpy transition from elementary to secondary school.

“There’s something that happens in that time that can have a negative effect on the lives of some kids,” she says. “The Ministry of Education asked us to try to figure out what that something is. And what may also be working well for others.”

Tilleczek’s group, which includes respected Canadian psychologist Dr. Bruce Ferguson at the Hospital for Sick Children, began three years ago with a review of the international research that had already been done about students in this age group.

“Often, the elementary school experience is portrayed as idyllic, gentle, and nurturing, while high school is painted as cruel and harsh,” says Tilleczek. “And for some students, that’s the case. Schools are not facilitating the jump from one to another.”

Her group then formed focus groups of grade eight students who were about to make the transition, as well as their parents and educators.

“These kids are a real cross-section of the province. We have kids in downtown Toronto, and kids from fly-in, remote communities in the far North.”

From the focus groups, Tillezcek’s group selected individual students for in-depth, one-on-one interviews about what was happening in their lives emotionally, socially, and in academics. They followed those same kids as they moved two years ago to high school, and last year as they entered grade ten. While the results of the research won’t be released until the final report comes out, there were some surprises to Tilleczek.

“In many cases, the image of the nurturing elementary schools and harsh high schools is just a myth. Many kids can’t wait to get out of elementary school and escape some of the false stigmas that have followed them since kindergarten. For these kids, high school is a chance to start again and build a new reputation. Some of them thrive on that change.”

Tilleczek points out this isn’t the case for all students, and the transition can also be a difficult one – which is partially why her group is calling their final report, Fresh Starts/False Starts: Mapping the Pathways and Processes of Transition from Elementary to Secondary School.

The photos in this post are taken by some of the students involved in Tilleczek’s research. Her group asked them to photograph images that could capture the idea of transitions.

“The results are amazing, don’t you think?” says Tilleczek. “We’ll include these images in the final report. I think they’re perfect illustrations.”