McGill newsmakers '03

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McGill Reporter
January 8, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 08
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McGill newsmakers '03

We were a joke on "The Tonight Show."

Okay, it might not be much of a distinction — it's not as if we made one of David Letterman's Top Ten Lists — but still, millions of folks do stay up late to watch Jay Leno's monologues and there he was, making fun of us.

The topic at hand was psychiatry professor Marco Leyton's research on cocaine. Recent newspaper ads in Montreal targeted men between the ages of 18 and 40 who had used cocaine within the last year and who were willing to take part in a study involving cocaine and the brain's neurochemistry. Participants would earn $500 and would be required to commit to four 24-hour hospital stays, an interview, the ingestion of protein drinks and the administration of cocaine.

Leno was dubious about the necessity of paying subjects to take the drug.

"Do we really need to pay them $500 — are the Canadians that naive?" mused Leno.

For his part, Leyton says his work is deadly serious.

"The issue for me as a medical scientist is that there are no treatments [for cocaine addiction]. We simply do not have medications that are effective. It is my hope that the research we are doing here will teach us how to decrease cocaine craving," Leyton told the Abbotsford News.

Meanwhile, Mark Ware from the McGill Pain Centre received the official go-ahead to begin his research on the possible medicinal benefits of marijuana, and psychiatry professor Simon Young continued to examine the link between ecstasy and depression.

Rumours abound that singer Courtney Love and comedy duo Cheech and Chong are looking for condos in the McGill Ghetto, having recently acquired an intense interest in the university's medical research activities. These celebrities are game to volunteer as research subjects.

Last year McGill folks won many impressive honours. Professor Margaret Somerville from the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, won UNESCO's first Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science, while professor emeritus of philosophy Charles Taylor earned the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's Gold Medal for Achievement in Research.

The Montreal Neurological Institute's William Feindel, a pioneer in the use of brain scanning technologies, was inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame, as was the late neuropsychologist Donald Hebb. Biochemist Nahum Sonenberg won Canada's prestigious Robert L. Noble Prize, while Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill Aids Centre, earned the Prix Galien Research Award.

McGill student Reynolds Mastin was co-winner of Magna's national "As Prime Minister" award. In all, four of the prize's 10 finalists hailed from McGill.

Prime Minister Paul Martin decided that McGill offers a stellar training ground for Ottawa policy-makers — five members of his new federal cabinet are McGill graduates: Justice Minister and Solicitor General Irwin Cotler, Veteran Affairs Minister John McCallum, International Trade Minister Jim Peterson, Associate Minister of National Defence and Minister of State (Civil Preparedness) Albina Guarnieri and House Leader and Minister Responsible for Democratic Reform Jacques Saada.

As always, McGill's researchers made plenty of news in 2003. And, as we've been doing for the past several years, the McGill Reporter pored over hundreds of stories in newspapers, magazines and on TV and radio shows to determine which researchers attracted the most attention.

To qualify for the list below, stories about the researchers had to mention their connection to McGill and had to give a sense of their area of research expertise. The listing reveals how many different media deemed the researchers newsworthy, not how often researchers appeared in the press in total. For instance, Karl Moore, one of our newsmakers, turned up in the pages of the National Post six times last year — we only count the Post once for our purposes.


Caption follows
Richard Menzies
Owen Egan

McGill's number one newsmaker for 2003 (drum roll please) was epidemiology and biostatistics professor Richard Menzies. In a study published in The Lancet, Menzies and his research team from the McGill University Health Centre chronicled their success in alleviating the misery and symptoms (persistent headaches, teary eyes, sore throats) associated with "sick building syndrome."

The researchers equipped heating and air conditioning systems in three sealed office buildings with ultraviolet sterilization devices targeting the areas where bacteria and mould collect. The ultraviolet equipment zapped 99 percent of the surface microbes within the systems and also destroyed bacterial toxins. After a year, workers in these buildings reported a 40 percent reduction in respiratory illnesses when the ultraviolet equipment was in use.

Equipping buildings with the ultraviolet devices would cost about $50,000 per building. "If you reduced absenteeism due to building-related illness by one day per year in each worker, this would pay for itself in less than six months," Menzies predicted at a news conference.

The study was covered by 128 different media, including The New York Times, The New York Daily News and CNN.


Caption follows
Jeffrey Derevensky
Owen Egan

In second spot was educational and counselling psychology professor Jeffrey Derevensky, co-director of the McGill-based International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems & High Risk Behaviour.

Derevensky's research points to a disquieting trend. Two decades ago, only about 20 percent of teens had gambled for money in a 12-month period. According to Derevensky and professor Rina Gupta, the Centre's other co-director, about 80 percent of teens now take part in gambling activities within the same time frame. Many of them are becoming addicted.

"We now have a generation of children who have grown up their entire lives in which gambling is not only widely accepted and legal, but endorsed and promoted by the provinces," says Derevensky. While thankful for the government funding his and other treatment centres receive to help young gambling addicts, Derevensky ruefully noted to The Toronto Star, "The bad news is it's still a fraction of what's spent on advertising" for gambling activities.

MSNBC, the Boston Globe and "CTV News" were among the 124 media that covered Derevensky's work.


Caption follows
Michael Meaney

Third place goes to psychiatry professor Michael Meaney, who offered new evidence highlighting the importance of a mother's love. Meaney and his research team compared baby rats who were frequently groomed and licked by their moms with rat pups who received far less maternal TLC.

The youngsters who enjoyed the extra attention dealt with stress far better as they grew older.

"The pups who are licked more are less fearful, they produce less stress hormones when provoked and their heart rate doesn't go up as much, so they have a more modest stress response than the pups who are licked much less," Meaney explained at the science conference where he announced his results.

The extra licking actually resulted in the pampered pups's brains producing more receptors that govern the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. More licking led to more receptors, which equipped the pups to deal better with stress. Meaney cautions that it's far too early to know if these results might pertain to humans in any way. Still, you might want to give Junior a few wet and sloppy licks before the next big spelling bee, just in case.

USA Today, the Daily Telegraph and The Globe and Mail were among the 86 different media to cover Meaney's research.


Caption follows
Karl Moore
Owen Egan

It was a tumultuous year for Air Canada, and that meant it was a busy year for management professor Karl Moore. An expert on globalization and management strategy, Moore has served as a consultant for such major companies as Nokia and Loblaws, and his opinions about the managerial operations of big businesses are often solicited by the media. This year reporters frequently rang Moore up for his take on the high drama that seemed to constantly surround Air Canada — from its descent into bankruptcy protection to Hong Kong businessman Victor Li's decision to invest $650 million into the troubled airline company.

Not that Air Canada was the only topic on which Moore weighed in with his views. He also analyzed the woes afflicting Bombardier and Les Ailes de la Mode, noted the "Wal-Martization" of Canadian retail as more stores offer everyday low prices and lamented the role that marketing approaches promoting "super-sized" junk food portions have played in the rise of obesity. Moore appeared in 52 different media last year, including The New York Times, Canadian Business and "Canada AM."


Caption follows
Jennifer O'Loughlin
Claudio Calligaris

Fifth place is accorded to epidemiology and biostatistics professor Jennifer O'Loughlin. She led a team of researchers from McGill, Montreal's public health department, the University of Toronto and the University of Massachusetts in examining teenagers and cigarettes.

In a study involving more than 1,200 Montreal high school students, O'Loughlin and her research team found that even teens who only smoked once or twice reported symptoms of nicotine dependence.

"This is important news because it challenges the current idea that it takes kids two to three years of daily smoking to develop nicotine dependence," said O'Loughlin.

O'Loughlin had been following the Montreal teens for four years. Her research team used questionnaires to measure their smoking patterns and such signs of nicotine dependence as withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

"It's further proof that when it comes to kids, you can't start prevention education or cessation programs early enough," O'Loughlin declared of her study's results, which were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Forty-seven media reported on O'Loughlin's work, including Good Housekeeping, the New York Post and the National Post.


Caption follows
Peter Jones
Owen Egan

In sixth position is dietetics and human nutrition professor Peter Jones, who helped develop a new cooking oil that seems to actually assist people in losing weight. For the McGill study, overweight research subjects were fed such fare as French toast with maple syrup and spaghetti with meat sauce prepared with the experimental oil. "We reproduced a typical North American diet or what could be found in a greasy spoon," Jones told The Globe and Mail.

The functional oil, as Jones terms it, is derived from a blend of coconut and other tropical oils. Olive oil, flaxseed oil containing omega-3 fatty acids that lower fat levels in blood, and phytosterols, which reduce cholesterol levels, are also part of the functional oil's recipe. Once consumed, the new oil isn't stored in fatty tissue like most fats. Instead, it is transported to the liver to be processed.

"You can have your cake and eat it too," Jones commented on "Canada AM" — but only if you sport a Y chromosome. Male research subjects lost a pound per month while they munched on food prepared with the functional oil. The functional oil had little impact on female subjects, however.

Forty-six different media took an interest in Jones's research, including "CTV National News," The Independent and La Presse.


Caption follows
Katherine Cianflone
Claudio Calligaris

Seventh place is a four-way tie with four McGill researchers, each garnering appearances in 41 different media.

Medicine professor Katherine Cianflone led a team of scientists from the McGill University Health Centre and Britain's Sheffield University that identified a new protein called the C5L2 receptor, which resides on the surface of fat cells. The discovery could be monumental because this protein signals fat tissue to store more fat. If anti-obesity drugs could be designed to target the way the C5L2 receptor functions, losing weight might become a lot easier.

"Now we can say we have not only the key, but the lock on the door that can actually control how much fat gets stored," Cianflone told Canadian Press. "Canada AM," The Toronto Star and Le Devoir all reported on Cianflone's findings, which were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.


Caption follows
Rhoda Kagan
Claudio Calligaris

Pediatrics professor Rhoda Kagan was part of a team of researchers from the McGill University Health Centre that discovered that the prevalence of peanut allergies among Montreal children was higher than expected — 1.5 percent, rather than one percent. The study seems to confirm what many allergists already suspected — that peanut allergies are on the rise.

Kagan and her collaborators received completed surveys from over 4,300 children and their parents and offered skin testing to kids who gave "uncertain" histories, or who had never been exposed to peanuts. The findings were published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

"One question that's been raised in the past is 'If peanut allergy is so prevalent and so dangerous, should there be accessibility to treatment, such as EpiPens, available in public places?'" Kagan told The Medical Post. "If you can have defibrillators in public places, why can't you have EpiPens?" Canoe, The Globe and Mail and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were among those who covered the story.


PhD candidate Sara Lourie from the Department of Biology also turned up in 41 different media. Credit Lourie with some sharp-eyed undersea sleuthing —she discovered a new species of sea horse, one that eluded other researchers for decades. Don't blame them, though; Hippocampus denise was darned hard to spot. The creature is a master of camouflage and is smaller than a human fingernail.

"They live fairly deep, below about 13 metres, so you don't tend to have very much time to look when you're diving," Lourie told the Edmonton Journal. "And I happened to be lucky on one of those dives." It also helps that Lourie knew more than a little bit about the 32 other species of sea horses that had previously been identified, one of the advantages of having co-authored Sea horses: An identification guide to the world's species and their conservation.

Lourie's discovery was deemed newsworthy by "BBC News," CBC Radio's "Quirks and Quarks" and the Washington Times.


Caption follows
Jeff Mogil
Owen Egan

There might be a scientific explanation for why Lucille Ball was able to cope so well with all those painful-looking pratfalls for all those years. Psychology professor Jeff Mogil and a team of researchers from McGill and the University of Florida found that a gene connected with red hair and fair skin in women allows many redheads to respond better than blondes or brunettes to a potent form of painkiller. A variant of the gene melanocortin (Mc1r) is responsible for causing the auburn hue adorning the heads of about 65 percent of redheads. The more common form of the gene, which is found in blondes and brunettes, actually blocks the effect of the painkiller in question, kappa-opioids.

"In men, the status of the gene was irrelevant," Mogil told the McGill News. Redheaded men with the Mc1r gene weren't at all sensitive to the effects of the kappa-opioids. "If men and women were using the same pain circuitry, the Mc1r gene would matter for men too." The results of this study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, bolsters Mogil's contention that "the pathways for pain in men and women aren't the same." As he and others uncover more facts about these pathways, Mogil believes there may soon be different pain medications for men and women. His work was examined by 41 media, including The Miami Herald, the National Post and on the Discovery Channel.

McGill graduates, of course, also turned up in the media regularly, in stories that mentioned their links to their alma mater.

Newsworthy alumni ranged from Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, to Canada's new ambassador to Afghanistan, Christopher Alexander, from John Earle, a recent 78-year-old PhD recipient from Louisiana State University, to Nancy Morris, Scotland's only female rabbi, from Auditor General Sheila Fraser, whose scathing criticisms of former federal privacy commissioner George Radwanski's spending habits contributed to his downfall, to, um, er, Radwanski himself.

McGill graduate Conrad Black was even named as the Canadian Press newsmaker of the year, but he probably won't be boasting about that particular distinction — the embattled press baron is fighting off charges that he personally pocketed millions that should have gone to his company, while stacking his board of directors with friendly faces who never asked hard questions about what he was up to.

On the positive side, his new biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a critically acclaimed bestseller. You can't have it all.

Among the McGill graduates who attracted the most media attention in 2003 in stories that mentioned their ties to the university were hockey coach Mike Babcock for leading the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup final; new Supreme Court of Canada justice Morris Fish; new Toronto Raptors head coach Kevin O'Neill; film screenwriter John Rogers (The Core, Catwoman); actress Laura Regan (Saving Jessica Lynch); NDP leader Jack Layton; architect Moshe Safdie; and Seattle Seahawks longsnapper J.P. Darche.

McGill graduates Maher Arar and Monia Mazigh continue to dominate newspaper headlines.

Arar attracted worldwide press attention. The Canadian citizen, suspected of terrorist links by the U.S., was deported to Syria by American authorities, where he was imprisoned for over a year and reportedly tortured. The Americans's actions were roundly criticized by Amnesty International and the Canadian government, and questions persist about what role Canadian intelligence officials played in the U.S. decision to send Arar to Syria.

Arar is demanding a public inquiry be held to determine what happened to him and why. Meanwhile nameless intelligence officials assert that Arar trained at terrorist camps in Afghanistan, a claim Arar himself strongly denies.

Mazigh, his wife, led a relentless and ultimately successful public campaign to have her husband released and returned to Canada. The two met at McGill while pursuing graduate studies.

The couple, no doubt, will make more news in 2004. They will have plenty of company as McGill researchers continue to make headlines in the year ahead.

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