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Research Prominence

Personalizing cancer treatment with 'big data'

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

David Skillicorn (School of Computing) has been awarded a Big Data, Big Impact Grant from the Cancer Institute of New South Wales and the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia to help personalize cancer treatment for children.

The grant, in its second year, will support Dr. Skillicorn and 10 other researchers for work on their project entitled Generating Actionable Knowledge from Complex Genomic Data for Personalized Clinical Decisions. The project will involve a large scale analysis of detailed data about childhood cancer patients suffering mainly from leukemia.

The project will challenge the previously defined categories that are currently used to determine cancer treatment for the patient.

“After a cancer diagnosis and some tests, patients would typically be categorized based on the risk and variance of their disease,” says Dr. Skillicorn. “The category would then determine the treatment program. There were always a few patients who didn’t seem to fit their category; they would do well against the odds, or poorly when they shouldn’t have.”

Current technology, called “high-throughput devices,” collects tens of thousands of marker values for each patient. Patients are then clustered and their eventual treatment is based on their cluster. Dr. Skillicorn’s research could result in a redefinition of these clusters.

“Patients don’t form clusters,” says Dr. Skillicorn. “The disease almost always looks different from one patient to another. We believe there must be some bottleneck that causes the wide variety of patient configurations to appear as a much smaller set of disease categories.”

Queen's professor unveils revolutionary foldable smartphone

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Queen’s professor Roel Vertegaal and student Antonio Gomes have unveiled PaperFold, a ground-breaking smartphone technology.

The shape-changing, touch sensitive smartphone allows the user to open up to three thin-film electrophoretic displays to provide extra screen real estate when needed.

Displays are detachable so users can fold the device into a number of shapes that can range from an ultra-notebook, to a map and back to a smartphone shape.

“In PaperFold, each display tile can act independently or as part of a single system,” says Dr. Vertegaal, a professor in the School of Computing and Director of the Human Media Lab at Queen’s. “Advantages to this technology include better support for performing tasks that would usually have required multiple devices, like a phone and a tablet PC or ultra-notebook in one.”

The technology was released at the ACM CHI 2014 conference in Toronto – widely regarded as the most important conference on interaction techniques for new technologies.

PaperFold demonstrates how form could equal function in malleable mobile devices. 
                                                                                                            - Roel Vertegaal

PaperFold automatically recognizes its shape and changes its graphics to provide different functionality for each shape.

  • For example, a user could search for a building in New York City on Google Maps in three ways.
  • By flattening the three displays, the user changes can view a Google map across all displays.
  • Manipulating the device into a globe-like shape opens a 3D Google Earth view.
  • Folding the device into the shape of a 3D building on the map will pick up available 3D SketchUp models of buildings on that location and turn the device into an architectural model that can be printed in 3D.

Inspiration for PaperFold came from its namesake: paper. Typically, mobile devices require scrolling or zooming in order to see different parts of a document whereas paper can be folded, detached or combined allowing it to be accessed in multiple documents.

“The development of electronic paper computers that can adopt similar qualities to paper has been a research goal for our team,” says Dr. Vertegaal. “The PaperFold smartphone adopts the folding techniques that make paper so versatile, and employs them to change electronic views and display real estate on the fly. PaperFold demonstrates how form could equal function in malleable mobile devices.”

A video of PaperFold is available at the Human Media Lab's Youtube channel and high resolution photos of the new technology can be found on the Human Media Lab's website.

Researcher's career work improves kidney stone treatment

Dr. Glenville Jones. 

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

After spending much of his career conducting extensive research on vitamin D metabolism, Queen’s researcher Dr. Glenville Jones has been featured in the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s (CIHR) “celebrating the impact of health research” series.

The CIHR write-up focuses on the impact of Dr. Jones’ research on the idiopathic infantile hypercalcemia (IIH) – a rare disease that causes the build-up of calcium in the kidneys and eventually leads to kidney stones in the patient.

Along with two German pediatric nephrologists, Dr. Jones showed that one of the main causes of IIH is a genetic mutation of the enzyme CYP24A1 that prevents the breakdown of vitamin D. Since this discovery, there is now an increased ability to diagnose, manage and treat hypercalcemia in children and adults.

“Most hypercalcemia patients eventually develop kidney stones, and everyone knows that the passing of kidney stones is one of the most painful experiences a human can suffer,” says Dr. Jones, a biochemistry professor in the School of Medicine. “A few IIH patients will go on to suffer from permanent kidney damage so it’s important that research in this area continues to develop.”

The write-up in the CIHR-IMHA special publication is a wonderful recognition of the impact of our basic science work on a clinically-relevant problem.
- Dr. Glenville Jones

CIHR’s special publication was created as a way to celebrate the value and impact of research in areas such as musculoskeletal health, arthritis, skin diseases and oral health conditions, as well as to demonstrate how important funding is to healthcare.

Dr. Jones acknowledges the benefits CIHR’s special publication will have on his research.

“The write-up in the CIHR-IMHA special publication is a wonderful recognition of the impact of our basic science work on a clinically-relevant problem,” says Dr. Jones. “In the past, knowledge and publicity of our work has helped spawn the Idiopathic Infantile Hypercalcemia-Europe-Canada-Collaboration which works with IIH patients around the world to investigate their illness and establish new treatment protocols.”

Dr. Jones' research is acknowledged as a part of CIHR's entire "celebrating the impact of health research" series, with an article titled "When too much is definitely too much: genetic mutation prevents vitamin D breakdown."

 

Targeting drugs to reduce side effects

Dr. Donald Maurice, Director of the Cardiac, Circulatory and Respiratory Research Program at Queen's.

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Consider ice cream – the base of which is frozen cream. Ingredients are then added to make different flavours. All these flavours are distinctly different but are created from the same foundation.

The same goes for actions of phosphodiesterases or PDEs – enzymes that are key targets for drugs that combat various cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Although PDEs carry out only one reaction in cells, they inactivate small signaling molecules. As humans, we can create about 120 different “flavours” of PDEs, using the 26 different PDE genes in our genome.

After conducting a review of the drugs that act by targeting individual PDE “flavours”, Donald Maurice, Director of the Cardiac, Circulatory and Respiratory Research Program at Queen’s, and his international co-authors have learned that many of the drugs’ side effects can be avoided.

When PDEs are inhibited, there is an increase in the rhythmic beating of the heart and blood pressure is often reduced. Common PDE-inhibiting drugs include caffeine and Viagra.

It's important to understand drug successes, but comprehensive critical reviews give researchers the chance to understand the basis of failures and make improvements.
- Dr. Donald Maurice

The research review aimed to study previous research on PDE’s in order to position past results in the context of the recently discovered “flavours” of PDEs, which can be targeted individually by cardiovascular drugs.

“Few PDE drugs currently available have the selectivity needed to target the individual PDE ”flavours” that contribute to human diseases,” says Dr. Maurice, also a professor in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences. “Yes, it’s important to understand drug successes, but comprehensive critical reviews give researchers the chance to understand the basis of failures and make improvements.”

While PDE-inhibitors have been used in the past to treat cardiovascular illnesses, this review outlines recent advances from the laboratories of the authors that have led to an increased interest in the design of PDE-acting drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and diabetes.

The review also found that drugs that target specific locations within a cell are more likely to be successful.

“If you can regulate individual events happening in individual locations of the cell then you can leave the normal functions of the cell unaffected while challenging the abnormal ones,” says Dr. Maurice.

Dr. Maurice’s review was published in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery. His research program is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Funding strengthens leading-edge research

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Four Queen’s researchers whose projects range from endometrial health to solar energy to animal biology have received over $500,000 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

The fund helps institutions attract and retain Canada’s top researchers.

Anne Croy.

“The CFI, through the John R. Evans Leaders Fund, has provided us with an excellent mechanism for attracting and retaining top-flight researchers,” says Vice-Principal (Research) Steven Liss. “As a result of this competition, four Queen’s researchers will receive the funding required to develop their innovative infrastructure to enrich the Queen’s research environment and advance leading-edge research.”

The following researchers have received funding:

Praveen Jain (Electrical and Computer Engineering), $400,000 – Dr. Jain’s research focuses on creating a smart microgrid, a green energy generating unit that is the future of the entire power grid network. The funding will allow Dr. Jain to build an experimental setup that accurately depicts smart microgrid dynamics, technical issues and behaviour.

Anne Croy and Chandrakant Tayade (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences), $100,000 – The goals of this research project are to improve the basic understanding of the dynamic biology of the reproductive-aged uterus and apply this information to the protection and health of women and their offspring. The funding will allow the researchers to develop a new core lab.

Frances Bonier (Biology), $80,000 – With an eye on conservation, Dr. Bonier is working to understand the influence of environmental challenges on traits related to survival and reproduction in the songbird population. The funding will be used to purchase high-tech field, lab and computing equipment that will assist in her field studies.

For more information visit the John R. Evans Leader Fund website.

Researcher finds gaps in care for high-risk cancer patients

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

A Queen’s professor has found that chemotherapy before or after surgery for high-risk bladder cancer is not commonly used in routine clinical practice despite the fact that it is shown to improve long-term survival by five per cent.

Christopher Booth (Queen’s Department of Oncology and Kingston General Hospital) is now using those findings to better understand the barriers to using chemotherapy, with the goal of implementing a plan to improve treatment rates.

Christopher Booth.

“Results from our study demonstrate that chemotherapy given after surgery improves patient survival—probably on the same order of magnitude as chemotherapy before surgery,” says Dr. Booth. “Patients having surgery for bladder cancer should have chemotherapy, either before or after surgery. Efforts are needed to improve uptake of this treatment, which appears to be vastly underutilized.”

To investigate, Dr. Booth, a member of the Cancer Research Institute at Queen’s University, examined treatment records of all 2,944 patients who had surgery for high-risk bladder cancer in Ontario between 1994 and 2008.

Use of chemotherapy before surgery remained stable (an average of 4 per cent of patients) over the study period despite international guidelines recommending its use. Despite more limited evidence supporting its use, chemotherapy after surgery increased over time: 16 per cent of patients between 1994 and 1998, 18 per cent between 1999 and 2003, and 22 per cent between 2004 and 2008. Study results showed that use of chemotherapy after surgery improved long-term survival by five per cent.

“The reasons for underutilization of chemotherapy in high-risk bladder cancer are not well understood. This problem is not unique to Ontario and has been identified by researchers in the United States and Europe,” says Dr. Booth. “It likely relates to a complex interaction between physician knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes and patient preferences.

“More work is needed to understand what is driving this gap in care so that interventions to improve treatment delivery may be implemented in Ontario and beyond.”

The findings are published online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

Event shines spotlight on Royal Society scholars

The Royal Society Seminar is being held Saturday, April 12 at the University Club, 168 Stuart Street starting at 10 am.

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Four Queen’s professors recently elected to the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) will soon have the chance to share their research with RSC fellows from across the country. Gauvin Bailey (Art History), Praveen Jain (Computer and Electrical Engineering), Carlos Prado (Philosophy) and David Lillicrap (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) were among seven Queen’s professors named fellows of the RSC last November.

“The Royal Society of Canada is important to me as someone who has just moved back to Canada after living abroad for most of my adult life because it is a way for me to meet colleagues across Canada who are doing amazing things,” says Dr. Bailey. “My appointment as fellow also comes at an opportune time for my own research as I am turning my attention toward Canadian patrimony in a book I am writing on the art and architecture of the French Atlantic Empire--it will include a great deal of material about pre-Conquest Quebec and the French missions to the Great Lakes peoples.”

(L to R) Dr. Graham Bell, President of the Royal Society of Canada, Dr. David Lillicrap, Principal Daniel Woolf, Dr. Gauvin Bailey, Dr. Carlos Prado, and Dr. John Meisel, Past President of the RSC gathered in early February at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

The topics for the day include:

Dr. Bailey – The Art and Architecture of a Paper Empire: Utopianism and Intransigence in the French Atlantic World

Dr. Jain – Power Electronics for a Sustainable Society

Dr. Prado – Personalizing Religious Faith

Dr. Lillicrap – Hemophilia: A Disease of Royals and Dogs.

“For an academic to receive fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada is a heart-warming accolade and somehow always comes as a delightful, unexpected surprise,” says Pierre Du Prey, co-chair of the event and a professor in the Department of Art History.

The Royal Society of Canada was established by an Act of Parliament in 1882 as Canada’s national academy. The organization helps promote Canadian research and scholarly accomplishment, and advises governments, non-governmental organizations and Canadians on matters of public interest.

The event, which is free and open to the public, is being held Saturday, April 12 at the University Club (168 Stuart St.) starting at 10 am.

Queen’s is also scheduled to host the Royal Society of Canada’s annual general meeting in 2016.

Heart health: Is Aspirin helpful or harmful?

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Queen’s University and Kingston General Hospital researchers are part of a groundbreaking international study that has shown that starting – or continuing – to take Aspirin before non-cardiac surgery as a way to protect the heart after surgery is ineffective and, in some cases, harmful.

Because surgery puts patients at increased risk of heart attack, doctors often continue to administer low doses of Aspirin before and after non-cardiac procedures. But new data from the Peri-Operative Ischemic Evaluation Study (POISE-2), published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that administering Aspirin provided no benefit in reducing the risk of heart-related complications after surgery.

Researchers Debbie Dumerton-Shore, Joel Parlow, Jessica McCourt and Rene Allard are part of a ground breaking study investigating the use of Aspirin to protect the heart after surgery. Photo courtesy Matthew Manor

“In fact, Aspirin was shown to increase the risk of serious bleeding after surgery, in some cases,” says Joel Parlow, Head of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine at both Queen’s and KGH and the hospital’s POISE-2 Site Principal Investigator. “This is important news for the medical community and for patients with risk factors for heart disease who are set to undergo non-cardiac surgery.” 

With over 10,000 patients from 23 countries and 135 centres, the study is the largest clinical trial to evaluate major cardiovascular complications in non-cardiac surgeries. More than 400 patients were enlisted from KGH, making it the fourth-largest recruiting site in the world, after Hamilton Health Sciences Centre and The Cleveland Clinic.

The POISE-2 study was designed and led by Principal Investigator P. J. Devereaux (McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute).

 “KGH was able to be a vital contributor to this important study due to the dedication of our excellent research nurses Debbie Dumerton-Shore, Jessica McCourt and Beth Orr, and my co-investigator René Allard. Our research team works side-by-side with patients, surgeons, nurses and with the input of the other members of the Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine,” says Dr. Parlow.

View the article online here.

New grad studies office helps post-docs thrive

By Wanda Praamsma, Communications Officer

Originally from Germany, Rebecca Hügler knows what it’s like to arrive at a new university in a new city and a new country. She first came to Queen’s in 2007 as an exchange student from Universität Karlsruhe and later returned to do her PhD in German studies with Jill Scott.

“I found the environment very supportive but the academic culture in Germany is more formal than in Canada, and I had to figure out how best to communicate with academics here,” says Dr. Hügler. “On top of that, you are also navigating the personal side of things, finding supportive peer groups and social opportunities.”

Rebecca Hügler, Co-ordinator, Office of Post-Doctoral Training

Finishing her doctorate last year, Dr. Hügler is now settled in Kingston and is using her adaptation skills and international background to help other academics transition into life at Queen’s. As the inaugural co-ordinator of the new Office of Post-Doctoral Training in the School of Graduate Studies (SGS), Dr. Hügler is responsible for supporting post-doctoral researchers who are currently at Queen’s or are considering Queen’s as a research destination.

“Queen’s has about 200 post-docs on campus and approximately half have international backgrounds. Many of them are also older, with partners and families,” she says. “With this new office and my position, we want to build a support network for them and give them the resources they need to have a successful experience at Queen’s.”

Post-doctoral researchers are academics who have recently completed their PhDs and are looking to gain research experience in a new environment, often in a different country. Fellowships are generally considered a natural stepping stone into the academic career.

“These researchers are only here for a few years and we want them to get the most out of their time on campus,” says Dr. Hügler, who began her new position in February. “I am developing a comprehensive orientation package for them and will be offering many resources for professional development, including facilitating workshops on topics such as grant writing and searching for jobs, both academic and in industry.”

In her new role, Dr. Hügler will consult with post-docs to identify what supports and services are most needed and how best to meet those needs. She stresses that her office welcomes input into her new role. Over the next few months, she will be conducting focus groups to gain as much insight into what post-docs need to thrive at Queen’s.

“Post-doctoral fellows have indicated that they want professional and skills development opportunities to complement their research training,” says Brenda Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “Locating responsibility in the School of Graduate Studies allows us to take advantage of their collective knowledge and expand our offerings to meet the needs of this unique group.”

Dr. Hügler welcomes feedback from current Queen’s post-docs and researchers who may be interested in working at Queen’s. She can be reached at sgspostdoc@queensu.ca

A website for the Office of Post-Doctoral Training will be available in the summer. Communications will provide the link when it becomes available.

Research reveals enzyme's helpful secrets

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Findings from an international study led by two Queen’s researchers could lead to safer food sources and provide better protection for crops.

Research emerging from the labs of David Zechel (Chemistry) and Zongchao Jia (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) has revealed the secrets of a new enzyme, PhnZ, that can degrade phosphonates, a class of compounds that includes various herbicides. This finding may lead to a new way to remove these compounds from the environment.

Zongchao Jia

“Our research has revealed the molecular details behind the powerful reaction catalyzed by PhnZ. This sets the stage to engineer PhnZ to destroy compounds of concern, including herbicides on our major crops,” says Dr. Zechel.

Genetically modified plants currently resist herbicides used to control insects and weeds. With the discovery of PhnZ, the enzyme could be added to crops that, when sprayed with herbicides, would neutralize the herbicide, making it safe for human consumption.

The enzyme PhnZ was originally discovered a few years ago by a research team from MIT.

“Through extensive study and research, we have gained a good understanding of how this enzyme really works,” says Dr. Jia.

David Zechel

The group’s research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research; it was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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