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Research Prominence

The twists and turns of life

This story was written by Judy Wearing and originally appeared in Issue 5, Spring 2014 of (e)AFFECT magazine. To read the full version, visit the (e)AFFECT website.

Chemist Anne Petitjean rhymes off her childhood influences with ease – the work of Louis Pasteur, a desire to be an artist, and a need to answer life’s mysteries from the “bottom up.” She found convergence of these interests in supramolecular chemistry, a field she describes as “molecular sociology … how [molecules] behave together, the way they interact, the way they feel each other, recognize each other, sense each other.”

The field applies to everything from materials science to medicine and environmental studies.

Anne Petitjean (r) assists a student in the lab.

Like Pasteur, Petitjean’s approach to research is “to feel what society needs and be aware of where your chemistry takes you.” One of her favourite targets is DNA, which has the most predictable structure of the large, biologically important molecules. Most DNA molecules at rest in our cells have a double helix shape – with pairs of nucleic acids arranged in a twisting ladder. The arrangement is compact and keeps our genetic material safe, buried inside the helix. But cells are dynamic and when DNA’s information is read, the molecule’s architecture transforms into folds, loops, and other secondary structures.

It is these temporary structures Petitjean finds most interesting for they are “responsible for life.” Her favourite secondary structures are the guanine quadruplexes. Guanine is one of four nucleic acids in DNA, and it forms quartets –squares that lie flat, stacked like pancakes, turning a section of the DNA ladder into a wide staircase. With 23 known structural variations and a number of specific functions, Petitjean is reveling in quadruplex mysteries.

Queen's extends training agreement with Chinese ministry

By Craig Leroux, Senior Communications Officer

Queen’s and the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) renewed their two-decade-long relationship this week with the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU). Under the agreement, Queen’s will continue to provide training to Chinese officials and the MLR and its affiliates will continue to offer an internship program for Queen’s students.

“We are very grateful for this collaboration in land and resource management and we look forward to this fruitful partnership continuing for many more years,” says Alan Harrison, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic). “This collaboration has provided the opportunity for the MLR and Queen’s to share best practices, policies and processes.”

Queen's in the World

Each year Queen’s organizes a three-week training session for up to 50 MLR officials and mining professionals, aimed at exposing them to land and resource management practices in Canada. The program is jointly offered by the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering and the Robert M. Buchan Department of Mining. Several Ontario and Canadian government ministries also present to the participants.

“I believe that our partnership will bring about a better future for both countries,” says Zhang Zhi, Director General, Department of Personnel in the MLR. “We really appreciate the support and work…provided by Queen’s University over the years.”

China provides a very good laboratory for our students to see how what they learn here can be applied in another culture.

- Professor Emeritus Hok-Lin Leung

The partnership began in 1995 as an initiative of Hok-Lin Leung, professor emeritus and former director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning, and was formally established through the signing of the first MOU in 1999. The MOU allows two Queen’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning students to work within the MLR in China each year. The agreement also covers a three to six month internship program for a small group of MLR officials to gain experience within a relevant public or private organization in Canada.

“China provides a very good laboratory for our students to see how what they learn here can be applied in another culture,” says Professor Leung. “Invariably when they come back they all have changed their perception about what China really is.”

Queen’s has a number of active partnerships and recruitment activities in China, including the recently established Master of Finance program with Renmin University and a semester abroad program with Fudan University.

Advanced dark matter experiment coming to SNOLAB

By Communications Staff

A major dark matter project is making SNOLAB, located near Sudbury, its new home.

The underground science facility has been chosen to host the Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (SuperCDMS), an international, multimillion-dollar dark matter experiment currently based in Minnesota.

  The Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search is an international, multimillion dollar dark matter experiment currently based in Minnesota with plans to progress the project by building a more sensitive detector at SNOLAB.

The SuperCDMS experiment was selected by U.S. funding agencies as one of its major second-generation dark matter projects, with support going toward expanding the science by building a more sensitive detector at SNOLAB.

Utilizing state-of-the-art cryogenic germanium detectors, the collaboration is searching for dark matter particles, also known as weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). The discovery of these particles could resolve the dark matter problem, revolutionizing particle physics and cosmology. The use of the underground facility at SNOLAB reduces interference of known background particles.

“SNOLAB is really excited to hear the news that SuperCDMS-SNOLAB has been selected as one of the U.S. second generation direct dark matter search projects, and will be heading to SNOLAB for its next phase of operations,” says Nigel Smith (Physics), director of SNOLAB. “As a leading experiment in the field of dark matter searches, the combination of improved detector technologies and the facilities at SNOLAB will allow SuperCDMS to improve its sensitivity to WIMP dark matter interactions even further, and hopefully detect these elusive particles.”

The facility is operated by the SNOLAB Institute whose member institutions are Queen’s University, Carleton University, Laurentian University, University of Alberta and Université de Montréal. It is located two km below the surface in the Vale Creighton Mine near Sudbury, Ont.


 

Tracking dangerous diseases

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Researchers at Queen’s University have created and validated computerized algorithms that identify eight common chronic conditions in primary health care. Tyler Williamson (Epidemiology) and his colleagues used information contained in patients’ electronic medical records (EMR) to create definitions of eight diseases.

The information can be used to monitor disease prevalence and incidence, guide policy and potentially improve treatment effectiveness in people suffering from dementia, depression, diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, Parkinsonism, epilepsy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Our study has demonstrated that our case definitions are valid and appropriate for use in primary care as well as to inform policy for these diseases,” says Dr. Williamson.

Researchers reviewed 1,920 patient charts from the Canadian Primary Care Sentinel Surveillance Network, Canada’s first national EMR data repository. Dr. Williamson has concluded CPCSSN has developed valid primary care EMR case definitions for identifying patients with these eight common chronic conditions.

These case definitions can be used for a variety of data-driven activities in primary care, including surveillance, routine practice evaluation, feedback and quality improvement, and research.

The research was recently published in the July/August edition of the Annals of Family Medicine.

Controversial Facebook study reviewed by Queen's ethicist

Dr. Udo Schuklenk. Photo by University Communications.

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Writing on behalf of 27 ethicists from across North America, Queen’s philosopher Udo Schuklenk and a team of five co-authors have written a commentary for the journal Nature on a controversial Facebook study.

The study manipulated the news feeds of 310,000 Facebook users to feature more content that was deemed either positive or negative by automated software. The results of this study showed that users who were exposed to less positive content very slightly decreased their own use of positive words and increased their use of negative words.

Dr. Schuklenk’s team believes the study did not violate anyone’s privacy and Facebook’s attempt to improve the user experience is consistent with its relationship with its consumers, despite many users’ concerns that Facebook “purposefully messed with people’s minds.”

“This group of influential bioethicists came together to defend sound and important research against charges by colleagues that something terribly unethical happened when researchers investigated what happens to our mood when the social networking site changes the news it delivers to us in our individual news feeds,” says Dr. Schuklenk, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Queen’s and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics.

The co-authors concluded that while the experiment was controversial, it was not a breach of ethics or law.

“The study involved no violation of privacy or pursuit of ends inconsistent with Facebook’s relationship with its users. Facebook simply altered its standard practice to detect how emotional content affects users in a way that was not known in advance to increase risk to anyone in the study,” says Dr. Schuklenk. “Permitting Facebook and other companies to mine our data and study our behaviour for personal profit, but penalizing it for making its data available for others to see and to learn from, makes no-one better off.”

Read the full commentary online or view a full list of authors and signatories

A new view of the world

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

New research out of Queen’s University has shed light on how exercise and relaxation activities like yoga can positively impact people with social anxiety disorders.

Adam Heenan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Clinical Psychology, has found that exercise and relaxation activities literally change the way people perceive the world, altering their perception so that they view the environment in a less threatening, less negative way. For people with mood and anxiety disorders, this is an important breakthrough.

An example of a point-light display.

For his research, Mr. Heenan used point-light displays, a depiction of a human that is comprised of a series of dots representing the major joints. Human point-light displays are depth-ambiguous and because of this, an observer looking at the display could see it as either facing towards them or facing away. Researchers have found people who are socially anxious perceive these figures as facing towards them (i.e., the more threatening way) more often.

“We wanted to examine whether people would perceive their environment as less threatening after engaging in physical exercise or after doing a relaxation technique that is similar to the breathing exercises in yoga (called progressive muscle relaxation),” Mr. Heenan explains. “We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill. The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation.”

Visit the BioMotion lab website to take the test.

This is important because anxious people display a bias to focus on more threatening things in their environment. In fact, some researchers think that this is how these disorders are perpetuated: People who are anxious focus on anxiety-inducing things and thus become more anxious, in a continuous cycle.

“This is a big development because it helps to explain why exercising and relaxation techniques have been successful in treating mood and anxiety disorders in the past,” says Mr. Heenan, who worked with supervisor Nikolaus Troje (Psychology) on the research.

This new research was published in PLOS one, an international, peer-reviewed publication featuring primary research from all scientific disciplines.

Surgical success story

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Once the stuff of science fiction movies, computer assisted surgery is now commonplace in operating theatres around the world. One of the leaders in the field, Queen’s University professor Randy Ellis was recently honoured with Maurice E. Müller Award, a lifetime achievement award from the International Society for Computer Assisted Orthopaedic Surgery.

For the past 19 years, Dr. Ellis (School of Computing, Surgery and Mechanical and Materials Engineering) has dedicated his career to computer assisted surgery and helping surgeons successfully complete difficult surgeries.

Randy Ellis demonstrates how computer assisted surgery works.

“Contributing to society is important,” says Dr. Ellis, who started his career in the field of robotics and now works out of the Queen’s Human Mobility Research Centre, “and this award is recognition from my peers for a successful career.”

In 1994, Dr. Ellis went to Italy to study surgery and a year later he joined forces with Queen’s professor John Rudan (Surgery) to develop software to perform the first computer assisted orthopedic surgery.

“Using computer assisted surgery, surgeons can accurately predict the result of the surgery. The technology also makes a difficult surgery possible, which increases the chances of a successful surgery,” he says.

Dr. Ellis is continuing his research into learning how joints move to create even more accurate computer programs for surgery. Currently, he is focusing on poorly healed fractures and early onset arthritis.

“I am revisiting how the human hip moves,” he explains. “I’m fascinated with the human hip because it’s vastly underappreciated. I want to maximize the potential of the hip and help people suffering from arthritis.”

For information about the award visit the website.

Solar house gets a new home

The experimental solar house, constructed by the Queen’s Solar Design Team, is moving this week to a new home on West Campus. Crews were on site Tuesday, at the corner of Union and Division streets, preparing the house to be lifted onto a flatbed trailer. The actual move to the West Campus parking lot near the water tower is expected to happen on Saturday, July 19. Once the house is moved, the parking lot at Union and Division will be graded and eventually paved to provide additional spaces for Queen’s parking permit holders.

Queen's researchers benefit from moustache fundraiser

The PRONTO team aim to determine the type of treatment needed after a prostate cancer diagnosis.

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

A national cancer research collaboration that includes two members from Queen’s has been awarded the $5 million 2014 Movember Team Grant from Prostate Cancer Canada (PCC).

David Berman and Paul Park, both from the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, will receive funding as part of the Prostate Cancer Program Project in Rapid Development of Novel Diagnostic Markers for Early Prostate Cancer (PRONTO). PCC identified the research team as poised to make the greatest impact in prostate cancer research.

The grant is awarded by PCC and funded by the Movember Foundation, a global charity that relies on the fundraising efforts of men collecting pledges as they grow moustaches every November.

PRONTO aims to determine the type of treatment needed when men are diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“Being a part of the PRONTO team provides me with a rare opportunity to participate in a large scale biomarker development project from discovery to clinical validation,” says Dr. Park. “The interactions fostered within this multi-institution, trans-disciplinary team will have a big impact in establishing my research career in this field. The funds provided by this grant will be used to support a post-doctoral trainee in my lab, and also to help establish one of the core components of this project here on Queen’s campus.”

Fewer than half of diagnosed prostate cancers are harmful and men newly diagnosed with the disease face an array of options and possible side effects.

“If we could better separate harmful and harmless prostate cancers, we could help patients and their doctors make clearer choices.  With funding from Movember and Prostate Cancer Canada our team will develop new and better tests for this purpose,” says Dr. Berman. “For members of my laboratory and me, this is an unprecedented opportunity to work with experts in a variety of critically important areas to do something important for patients.  We are extremely grateful to Movember, Prostate Cancer Canada, and all of the donors and volunteers who have made this work possible.”

The team is led by John Bartlett of the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and the research team is made up of 14 researchers from across Canada.

Follow these links for more information on Prostate Cancer Canada and Movember Canada.

Cancer grading gets an upgrade

A microscope view of prostate cancer. Photo courtesy of David M. Berman, 2014.

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Prostate cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer among Canadian men but only about half of these cancers grow rapidly enough to require treatment.

However, determining which prostate cancers need to be treated can be tricky because it’s hard to predict through biopsy which cancers will eventually become harmful.  In fact, because biopsies often do not yield accurate information, between a third and half of patients initially diagnosed with harmless prostate cancers are likely to be “upgraded” to potentially harmful cancers within a year or two of diagnosis.

A research team led by Dr. David Berman, a professor in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at Queen’s, and Dr. Tamara Lotan from Johns Hopkins University discovered that the decline of a specific protein within a tumour could help identify the tumours requiring treatment.

“We have shown that a tumour-suppressing protein called phosphatase and tensin homolog, or PTEN, is lost most frequently in prostate tumours that will become harmful and require treatment,” says Dr. Berman. “The team from Johns Hopkins has done a terrific job of making this test more reliable and valid and applicable to prostate cancer and to other forms of cancer.”

Dr. David Berman. 

Currently, the Gleason Grading system is used to determine the harmful potential of prostate cancers. Scores usually range from 6 to 10, with lower numbers often indicating cancers that are unlikely to become harmful.

One hundred and seventy four prostate cancer patients with a Gleason score of 6 had The team measured PTEN levels in cancers biopsied from 174 patients, who appeared to have harmless cancers with Gleason scores of 6 or less.   Seventy-one of these cases were upgraded to potentially harmful cancers with a score of 7 after the entire prostate was surgically removed and examined by pathologists. Importantly, PTEN loss found in biopsies helped separate harmless cancers from their more dangerous look-alikes.

“The 71 patients who had their tumours upgraded had a three times higher rate of PTEN loss than the group that was accurately graded,” says Dr. Berman. “Although the percentage of patients who have PTEN loss is low, this finding is extremely exciting as it proves that measuring proteins in biopsies can improve accuracy.  Also, it’s a fairly simple test that could be done in any pathology lab.”

This research has been published in Modern Pathology. The research team included Dr. Jeremy Squire and Jennifer Good from the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s and a team of eight additional Johns Hopkins researchers: Filipe Carvalho, Sarah Peskoe, Jessica Hicks, Helen Fedor, Elizabeth Humphreys, Misop Han, Elizabeth Platz, and Angelo De Marzo. 

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