The 3 R’s of Research: Review. Report. Reproduce

ReviewReportReproduce

Tired of poorly reported and non-reproducible research? What role does uncertainty play in research? Learn about these issues that can lead to this growing problem of research waste in the scientific world, and what steps you can take to improve your own reporting practices.

Thursday, Sept 14th 2017

Alice Moulton Room, Gerstein Science Information Centre. 9 King’s College Cr., U of T

5-7pm – FREE (open to U of T students, faculty, researchers & staff)

Register here!

Breast Cancer “decision tree” helps women navigate treatment options

“No other tool like this anywhere in North America,” says U of T medical anthropologist

A free information tool largely designed by breast cancer survivors and a University of Toronto medical anthropologist is now available online to explain treatment options for the most common form of cancer in women.

Breast cancer “decision trees” that map out treatment options for every form of the disease are a key feature of the website, which also includes information about the many types of the cancer and easy-to-understand explanations of the medical terminology.

“There is no other tool like this anywhere in North America,” says Kristin Bright, assistant professor, teaching stream, in U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science. “Everything from the language and graphics to the colours and fonts is informed by patients and survivors.”

See the decision tree

With many patients facing surgical treatment within a few weeks of diagnosis, the site is meant to help them understand their disease and consider their options.

“A lot of people leave their doctor’s office feeling they either got too much information or too little, and they’ve heard medical terms that haven’t been explained,” says Bright, who was at the New York University School of Medicine and Perlmutter Cancer Center before joining U of T.

“When they go into the decision tree, they’ll see a short description, and then they can choose to read more. It’s sort of an iterative design so you’re not getting too much information at once.”

While the type of breast cancer may dictate certain procedures that must be followed quickly, there will also be decisions the patient has to make, notes Bright.

These include choosing radiation or chemo treatment before or after surgery, and whether to have immediate breast reconstruction or to wait until later.

The tool is not intended to be used in isolation but to empower the patient to discuss the information and options with their care providers, Bright says. She adds that the designers anticipate that the site will reduce anxiety and improve communication.

It’s also an important education tool, Bright says.

“In a very diverse population like Toronto, that’s important because people might have pre-existing ideas or concepts of what a tumor might be.”

Bright recalls a patient she interviewed while in New York who was from Haiti. The woman put off surgery for two years because, like many in her community, she thought the lump in her breast was caused by menopausal blood that would dissipate.

The site is accessible on any browser or mobile device and is still in the testing phase. Bright and a team of advisors and clinicians have been working on the site for two years, and they hope to gather more feedback from visitors that they can incorporate prior to its official launch in June 2017.

The text is written in Grade 8 English and it will be translated for a French-language site before the official launch.

As the site grows and develops over time, the designers hope to add information about post-treatment care, survivorship resources, and complementary and alternative care such as acupuncture, massage and meditation.

Bright also hopes the site could eventually contribute to existing patient advocacy movements to improve care in underserved areas by raising awareness.

Startup funding has come from a grant from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA).That money will take the website through the launch next year, and then Bright will be looking for additional funders.

“We’re hoping to spread the word so that people can see that this is often a manageable disease, and there is life after breast cancer,” says Bright.

“I also hope that this tool will help people understand they need to continue monitoring their health, even after treatment.”

Science Leadership Program 2017

About the Science Leadership Program

April 19-21, 2017 

The Science Leadership Program (SLP) is “an amazing and transformational” 2+ day workshop designed to give faculty members the tools they need to be better communicators and more effective leaders, both on and off the University campus.

Joined by colleagues from the University of Toronto (U of T) and other Canadian universities, faculty members are invited to participate in a series of hands-on training sessions on communications, outreach, and leadership in research. Internationally renowned experts in science communication and science leadership will deliver a series of sessions and panel discussions.

The workshop will begin with a reception at 4:30 pm on April 19th, 2017, and will end with a group dinner on April 21st, 2017.


Application and Selection

Applications for April 2017 are now open! Click here to apply!

Normally 11 participants from U of T and about 8 more from other research-intensive Canadian universities are selected.

Selection criteria include:

  • excellence in scientific/engineering/medical research and teaching;
  • passion and capacity to exercise leadership and enthusiasm for communicating science;
  • interest, willingness and appropriate professional position to engage with stakeholders; and,
  • commitment to participate fully in the training program and follow-up activities.

Given the intensity and the nature of the training, participants are expected to commit to the full three evenings and two days of the program.

Over the course of the following year, the SLP Fellows (including participants of the 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 programs) are encouraged to put into practice what they learn at the SLP to further their vision for broad engagement through outreach initiatives, community partnerships, mentoring programs or writing/speaking to the public. They are also invited to attend a gathering to share their experiences and best practices with the other Fellows.

Questions? Contact SLPapply@utoronto.ca


slp-photo-web2

Congratulations to the April 2016 Science Leadership Program Fellows

The 2016 Science Leadership Program brought science leaders from around the country to engage in an intensive two-and-a-half day set of exercises, panels, games and learning activities designed to hone their communication and leadership skills.

The program began with a reception on the evening of Wednesday, April 13th and ended with a group dinner on Friday, April 15th. In between, there were a series of hands-on training sessions on communications, outreach and leadership, discussion panels and opportunities for interaction. Experienced trainers and prominent practitioners lead the sessions and participated in the panels. Participants were inspired by:

  • Opening remarks by Cheryl Regehr, Vice-President & Provost, U of T
  • Nancy Houfek, formerly head of voice & speech at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, whose session entitled The Performance Art of Science Presentation provided creative instruction on effective communication and presentation skills.
  • Peter Redstone and Dr. Martin Bloxham of The Barefoot Thinking Company, a world leader in delivering leadership programs for scientists and researchers, focused on three key leadership areas:
    • How to influence others
    • The power of giving and receiving constructive feedback and
    • How to plan for critical strategic communications issues.
  • Panel discussions with leading communicators on effective communication moderated by Jim Handman, Executive Producer, Quirks & Quarks
  • Primer on science communication with Penny Park, Executive Director, Science Media Centre of Canada

New Brain Imaging Data Points to Better Treatments for Autism and ADHD

Imagine if we could use data from a brain image to diagnose autism or ADHD. Or if we could use that same image to predict the right treatment.

Right now, we diagnose autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) based on information about a person’s experiences and behaviours that fit a textbook definition.

For the roughly 15 per cent of children in Ontario who have at least one of these disorders, there are no blood tests or brain scans to help make a diagnosis.

In fact, some of the clinical symptoms that define one disorder can often be part of the picture of another. For example, symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity underlie a diagnosis of ADHD, but these symptoms are often present in children presenting with symptoms of ASD or OCD.

This overlap between children with ASD, ADHD and OCD raises an important question: What are the biological differences and similarities between different neurodevelopmental disorders? If we can answer that question, would we then be able to provide diagnoses that are based on biology? And would that then accelerate treatment discovery?

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I’m part of a research team trying to answer these questions. Recently, we published the first research using advanced scanning to study the brain’s “white matter” across all three disorders. Previous brain imaging studies have examined these disorders separately.

White matter is essentially the wiring that connects different parts of the brain. It is essential for the fast transfer of messages between distant brain regions. Healthy white matter is critical for complex brain functioning, such as managing social interactions, and regulating attention and behaviour. We discovered in our study of 200 children that some changes in the wiring of the brain looked similar in children with autism, ADHD and OCD, compared to children without a disorder. If there are similar brain changes present in all three disorders, it raises the possibility that treatments that work for one disorder may work for others as well.

We also found that more miswiring was related to greater challenges in everyday functioning, regardless of diagnosis. This finding also provides hope that we may be able to develop treatments appropriate for children with ASD, ADHD or OCD that aim to improve everyday functioning, and potentially improve related brain wiring.

By looking across different disorders and focusing on symptoms that are common across disorders (like impaired everyday functioning), our study suggests that we are moving closer to understanding the underlying biology of these disorders. In future, these advances will allow us to move away from diagnoses based on textbook definitions and move toward making diagnoses based on biological markers. We hope that this type of advanced imaging along with other measures will help us reclassify these disorders in a way that more closely represents their underlying biology. We think that this will make the job of discovering new treatments much easier.

For complex disorders like autism, ADHD and OCD treatments that make a difference early in life may change the way a child develops. So the earlier and more precisely we can diagnose and treat these disorders, the better the chances for good long-term outcomes.

Dr. Stephanie Ameis is a physician-scientist in the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, the McCain Centre for Child, Youth and Family Mental Health at CAMH and the Child and Youth Mental Health Collaborative at CAMH, Sick Kids and the University of Toronto. She is a member of the Province of Ontario’s Neurodevelopmental Disorders (POND) Network, and worked with POND Lead, Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou on the recently published brain imaging study. Doctors’ Notes is a weekly column by members of the U of T Faculty of Medicine. Email doctorsnotes@thestar.ca .

We Need Better Guidelines to Curb Sugar Consumption

Researchers at the University of Toronto investigating the amount of free sugar in Canadian prepackaged foods and beverages are calling for new guidelines and better food labeling to help consumers make better choices.

Free sugar, commonly referred to as added sugar, is considered a “hidden” source of calories, as it’s not always apparent to consumers they are present. Also, the excessive consumption of free sugar has been associated with an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and tooth decay. The same ill-health effects are not associated with naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruits and vegetables, because they are still in their natural or intact form along with many vitamins, minerals, and often fibre.

The research team, which was led by Professor Mary L’Abbé, used a vast database of food labeling information – the University of Toronto’s Food Label Information Program – to identify the grams of sugar present in more than 15,000 products. The products were categorized into 17 sugar-focused major food groups, including 77 major subcategories and 207 minor categories. The researchers then applied an algorithm, that primarily uses the total sugar content and ingredient list, to determine what percentage of the total sugar came from free sugar.

The results show that eight of the 17 food groups have more than 75% of the total sugar coming from free sugar. Those with the highest proportion, as might be expected, were desserts (94%), sugars and sweets (91%) and bakery products (83%). Free sugar contributed 20% of calories overall in prepackaged foods and beverages.

The findings were reported in the journal Nutrients on September 21, 2016.

“Without information on the free sugar content of foods, it’s hard for consumers to know how much free sugar is too much,” said Jodi Bernstein, who was first author of the paper.

Bernstein and L’Abbé are hoping this paper will help demonstrate to policymakers the need for clear food labels that will help consumers monitor their consumption compared to the daily amount of free sugar that is recommended.

“People are rightfully concerned about how much sugar they are consuming,” said L’Abbé. “If they are going to be concerned about sugar, we want to make sure their concern is focused is on the right kind of sugar: free sugar.”

She points out that Health Canada is currently reviewing food labeling policy in Canada, which occurs every 10 to 15 years. While a similar review in the United States led the Food and Drug Administration to require added sugar to be reported on labels starting in July 2018, that hasn’t yet happened in Canada.

“While Canada and the United States generally have very similar food labeling requirements, it’s unfortunate that we haven’t taken a similar step in this instance,” said L’Abbé.

A Portable Drug Manufacturing System

As much as 80 per cent of the cost of bringing vaccines to the developing world comes from ensuring that the medications are properly refrigerated and transported.

A team of researchers from the University of Toronto, MIT, Harvard, and the University of Ottawa have developed a new portable drug-manufacturing system that uses two sets of freeze-dried pellets, which when mixed with water, are able to produce medications, vaccines and diagnostic tools virtually anywhere in the world.


      (courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

The team published a proof-of-principle paper in Cell that details the development of a drug manufacturing system that’s able to produce on-site, on-demand therapeutics and biomolecules.

“In essence, it’s like having a portable pharmacy that you can use to create the medications you need,” said Assistant Professor Keith Pardee of U of T’s Faculty of Pharmacy, co-lead author of the paper.

Most vaccines need to maintain a consistent temperature to prevent spoilage and maintain their efficacy, which necessitates a cold chain from production to application.

Despite these precautions and the attention paid to their transportation, the World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund estimate that the amount of essential vaccines that end up wasted could be as high as 50 per cent.

The first of the freeze-dried pellets, developed by the researchers in 2014, is an innovative cell-free synthetic biology “machinery” that provides the manufacturing infrastructure to create an end product.

The second pellet consists of DNA instructions that tell the manufacturing piece what compound to produce. This pellet can be customized to generate a variety of products, including vaccines, anti-cancer antibodies, and diagnostic tools.

When the two freeze-dried pellets are combined with water, the production process begins.

Read more about the team’s earlier research on a low-cost Zika virus detection system

Through the simple act of rehydrating the components by adding water, vaccines, antibody-based drugs for cancer treatment, small molecules, and clinical tools like diagnostic systems spring to life, bringing tools and treatments to underserved populations.

The possible applications for this discovery, Pardee explains, are almost endless.

“If, for example, the influenza vaccine developed in a given year is off target and doesn’t fight the strains of the virus that emerge, the system we’ve developed can address that,” he said. “The current production chain for the influenza vaccine begins in late spring early summer for fall and winter application. If the formula is wrong, it would take months to change, produce, ship, and administer a vaccine that hits on the right strains.

“Whereas with our system, in theory, once the proper strains are identified and a new formula developed, the vaccine could be produced anywhere in a matter of hours. The materials would already be on the shelf – they’d just need to be programmed to produce the vaccine. While this is just a proof-of-concept study, this could mean no prolonged production time, no timely and expensive shipping.”

These freeze-dried pellets last for at least a year at room temperature, making shipping and storage easy and considerably less expensive than traditional means – even to the most remote areas. It also means that the products can be stored on the shelf, ready to be activated when an outbreak occurs or whenever the need arises.


 (courtesy of Wyss Institute at Harvard University)   

“This technology could even be applied for use in remote Antarctic research bases or for something as fanciful as space travel,” Pardee said. “If deployed in combination with a DNA synthesizer, the gene sequences that encode the manufacturing instructions could be electronically transmitted to remote end users, converted to DNA, and used to guide the cell-free manufacturing platform to produce therapeutics to meet unanticipated needs.”