Dear RSC Academy of Science Colleagues,
In my first message to you as President of the Academy of Science, I would like to wish you a very productive 2018 while once again giving a warm welcome to the newest RSC inductees. With January and February gone, the year is moving along and so are our activities. As the RSC enters its 136th year, and with the technological, demographic and political transformations happening around us, it is time to refocus our goals on realistically making changes for a better future for society. Thanks to the numerous resources and facilities provided by the work of the RSC during the last decade, we are better poised to make contributions that will make a difference. While looking forward to refocusing and adapting to make a better impact, one major topic of conversation that we have had over the last two years was about the development of a strategic five-year plan for 2018 to 2022. The importance of communication especially between science and society, personal development, the advancement of complex topics and leadership, both domestically as well as internationally, have been included in the discussions which have led to the development of a strategic plan. Our direction for the next five years will seek to mobilize our membership, catalyze new contributions, and sustain our momentum. We all must actively contribute, and I encourage all of us to participate in opportunities for holding leadership positions to influence discussions at the next G7 convention which will take place in La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, from June 8th to 9th, 2018. Please keep a look out for the new strategic plan document that will detail more information on our goals for the next five years.
At our last general meeting in November 2017, we had the opportunity to listen to twelve impactful presentations from twelve new inductees. This workshop, which may be the norm for years to come, is aptly referred to as “The Innovative Café”, highlighted the very important work being executed by our distinguished new Fellows in different scientific realms, and also stressed how engineering and science tie into sustainability. In my classification, these presentations are grouped into three important themes: Earth, Digital, and Wellbeing. In this and subsequent newsletter, I will be sharing with you summaries of these presentations authored by the inductees. You will see that they provide insights into lingering questions, such as how did the earth really form? How do information and communication at the quantum level shape and continue to influence our world? Do human connections matter to everyday life and survival and are these topics “scientific”? Is there is really a scientific backing to the power of a parent’s touch? What defines the immunological relationship between mother and child? Can we stem cancer and improve health in general and what are the other functions of the so called “junk” RNA? How can Physics help Biology? The first two articles are in this newsletter. The first article is authored by Marsha Campbell-Yeo who talks about the power of a parent’s touch. This topic is important to society because unmanaged pain in babies has greater implications for adulthood as this can affect their relationships and even their brain development. In Marsha’s words, medication is not always the best or correct answer. Many drugs that work for adults don't work for babies, and that’s where neonatal intensive care comes into play. Please read the full article here. The second article is the transcript of the presentation by Catherine Beauchemin, and is equally important in its content because it discusses the merger of the physical sciences with life sciences. Again, with the digital age upon us, the importance of models cannot be overemphasized. “Virophysics” as Catherine calls it, listens to virologists and microbiologists and translates their speech into models. This is a tremendous step forward because of the potential to be able to characterize deadly virus strains and overcome or manage drug resistance. Think about the potential implications for HIV and other recalcitrant deadly viruses. You will enjoy reading Catherine’s transcript here.
Finally, my introductory message would be incomplete if I do not thank the RSC Secretariat for their efficient administration of the different academies that relies on a lot of think-tanks and hard work. I also want to especially thank the immediate past president, Jamal Deen, for providing a smooth transition and thereby continuing the tradition of other past presidents. Jamal achieved a lot during his tenure as president, notably including the following:
- Active involvement in several committees and councils of the Academy f Science.
- Creation of the Past President’s Council
- Increased membership in all committees
- Involvement of PAGSE with several meetings and seven presentations in the Academy of Science.
- Creation of guidelines for evaluating foreign fellows
- Coordination with the RSC council
- Establishing international relationships, meetings and key presentations in the USA, Philippines, and Japanese Embassy
You may wish to read the detailed report of the past president’s activities here.
As highlighted earlier, participation is key to advancing the agenda of the RSC. Upcoming RSC activities are listed here. I strongly encourage all members of the Academy of Science to bring forward their innovative ideas by writing articles for our Academy of Science Newsletter.
It’s time to mobilize, catalyze, and sustain,
I went to work in the IWK's neonatal intensive care unit (or NICU) more than 25 years ago because I loved the fast pace, the adrenalin rush, and the idea of saving lives using high tech care. To me, providing best care for babies was all about the best technology had to offer. While it’s certainly true that the babies who survive today, did not survive when I first started -- the bad news is that it comes with being exposed to many necessary medical procedures. Now, as an associate professor and clinician scientist, I wanted to find ways to decrease the pain and stress often associated with the life-saving technology.
So why pain? To help answer this question, I want you to meet Jack, a typical baby cared for in our NICU. Jack was born 4 months early, weighed just over 1 and a half pounds, and spent 118 days in the NICU. There, he endured over 1,100 procedures like heel pokes, intravenous insertion, and blood collections. It may come as a shock to most people that 3 decades ago, it was widely believed that babies did not feel or remember pain. In fact babies even underwent surgery without pain medication simply receiving medications to keep them from moving. I know that’s hard to believe. Today we know babies do feel pain and remember pain. We are learning that untreated pain can also impact how babies react to pain later in life, how they think, form relationships, and even how their brains develop.
Sadly, recent studies tell us that less than half of babies in Canada and the world do not receive any pain relief for these procedures. Sadly, solutions are not that easy… medications are not always the simple answer, many drugs that work for adults don't work for babies. We had to find other ways… We realized our world had become so reliant on specialized drugs and technology, we were underutilizing our most important resource: parents. So you may ask yourself what's so innovative about a parent's comforting touch? I would actually argue that in the NICU it truly is a new direction in the way we have provided care.
Remember Jack? In addition to his pain he also experienced more than 2,000 hours of maternal separation, which was both stressful for him and his mom. So how could parents help? Together, with my team and the support of a world-leader in neonatal pain, Dr. Celeste Johnston, we conducted several studies to test simple parent strategies like the upright holding of a diaper clad baby on the bare chest of a mother, which is called skin-to-skin contact or kangaroo care. Seems natural, right? But this wasn't happening. Through our research we found incredible things. Human touch for babies provided during routine procedures like heel pokes and needles, decreased how a baby felt and responded to pain. Touch stabilized their heart rates and the amount of oxygen in their bodies, and helped them recover faster after the procedure was over. We conducted studies with fathers, other women like grandmothers or aunts, and even tested whether a baby’s preterm twin could help reduce the stress associated with these procedures. We determined that it wasn’t
just a mother’s contact that could help. Human touch was the answer and we determined that these interventions remained effective over a babies entire hospital stay. And the best part was, it helped parents too. Parents told us that it made them feel closer to their baby. It made them feel better; they felt less stressed, more in control and confident. Now we are testing the effects of maternal led interventions on the brain and potential longer lasting benefits. We wanted to find ways to tell other scientists and clinicians about what we and others had found. So we created a synthesis of all the science that had been done around the world about skin-to-skin contact and pain relief. We included 25 clinical trials, almost a third conducted by our team in Nova Scotia. Each reaffirmed the benefits of human touch.
However, we needed to tell parents too, as most don't realize how powerful their touch could be. So I created a parent friendly two-minute YouTube video “Power of a parents touch” which has now been viewed over 186,000 times in more than 152 countries and has been translated into fourteen languages. We now know parent led interventions are safe, free, natural, and effective. They benefit babies, moms and families and can be done at home or in hospital. Our new challenge was finding ways to ensure our science actually changed care locally, in Canada and around the world; we needed to create a culture of care. Nova Scotian’s heard us, and we are moving towards this paradigm shift. We are in the beginning stage of creating a new care environment that supports this model. We are now building a single family room design versus our previous open-bay concept. This is a space for families to stay close to their babies; however, new spaces and new ways of doing things always create challenges. How would we educate families and engage them in this new space? How would we support them and ensure they didn't feel alone? We needed to find solutions. And this is where I come full circle -- because I believe balancing human touch with technology is the answer. I am excited to be the Scientific Director for Chez NICU Home, a multi-million dollar Innovation Project funded by ACOA (Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency), Cisco Systems and the IWK Health Centre. Our aim will be to create a health Solution to address learning and communication needs, keep families together, and improve efficiencies in the health care system. The backbone of Chez NICU will be a sophisticated, secure, virtual environment, housing an evidence based interactive library, as well as a communication platform that will seamlessly link parents and IWK professionals to each other and to the homes of their families, their local health professionals and others who are supporting them, no matter where they are.
So looking back to Jack, what does this mean? Remember those 1,100 pokes and needles and more than 2,000 hours of maternal separation? It means Jack wouldn't have had to endure alone. It means his parents would have the knowledge, support skills, and resources, to be an integral part of his care. The message I want to leave you with is that parental presence and human touch is not just a nice thing -- it has been scientifically proven to dramatically change outcomes for babies like Jack. My hope for health care is that babies requiring neonatal care will have the best of both worlds: technology and touch.
Marsha Campbell-Yeo is an Associate Professor of Nursing at Dalhouise University and clinician scientist at the IWK Health Centre. She is internationally recognized for her contributuions towards improving outcomes in vulnerable newborns. Her work represents a paradigm shift in care delivery by fully integrating mothers and families in everyday care. She investigates maternal driven interventions to improve outcomes of medically at risk newborns specifically related to pain, stress and neurodevelopment.
Virophysics is a term I coined to describe my research which consists of applying the tools and methodology of physics to study viruses and virus infections. In physics, knowledge is pursued through experiments and theory working synergistically. Experiments uncover new phenomena, and verify or refute existing theories. In return, theoretical work provides an understanding of experimental observations and makes predictions, sometimes well ahead of the technology required to make such discoveries.
In contrast, biological and health research has been advanced primarily through experimental observations, and this imbalance causes some issues. Without a theoretical framework, it is impossible to make predictions and to extrapolate findings beyond existing experimental observations. Without quantitative models, like F=ma or E=mc2, it is also hard or impossible to differentiate between a genuine departure from theoretical expectations, meaning a discovery, and a faulty experiment. This is largely to blame for the lack of reproducibility in biological and health sciences.
Research in virophysics attempts to address this imbalance through the development of mathematical and computer models (or laws) to quantitatively describe the mechanisms at play in a virus infection, and to predict their course and outcome. The process of model development begins by listening to virologists and microbiologists, and scouring the literature, to translate the known or hypothesized aspects of the infection process into a set of mathematical expressions. The more complete and detailed the theoretical model, the more parameters it has. For example, if the behaviour of a newly infected cell is different from that of a cell that has been infected for a while, this age of infection must be added explicitly in the theoretical model. Should the cell shift smoothly from one state to the other as it ages? At what rate? When? The process of model-building itself raises many questions, most of which are not yet resolved. So even the very early process of constructing the model is valuable in identifying gaps in our knowledge. But this can also quickly start to feel like a losing battle. One concern is parameter identifiability, i.e. can we accurately resolve the value of all the model parameters? Another is parameter degeneracy: in some experiments, having twice as many cells produce half as much virus looks the same as having half as many cells produce twice as much virus. Because the field is in its infancy, current experimental methodology is often not suited to collect the type of data required for robust, quantitative analyses. As such, the difficulty in this field lies in identifying a good infection system and a relevant question. My attention over the last 13 years or so has been primarily focused on influenza A virus infections. To reduce the complexity of the task, I study almost exclusively in vitro infection, i.e. infections conducted in largely homogeneous laboratory cell cultures, mostly devoid of complicating host or immune factors.
Over the last several years, we developed a mathematical and computational modelling framework for influenza A virus infections in vitro. We refined the model by confronting it with published data sets to ensure it can reproduce the range of infection kinetic patterns observed under different experimental conditions. Over time, we identified a set of 3 experiments that together provide a complete set of independent information. In the “mock yield” assay, virus samples are incubated in the absence of cells, as the concentration of total and infectious virus over time is measured. It provides information about the manner and rate at which virus naturally degrades over time and loses its ability to infect cells. In the “single-cycle” assay, cells are incubated with enough infectious virus to infect all cells at once, after which the input virus is promptly rinsed. Because infection of all cells is synchronized in this manner, the collective behaviour of all cells in the assay corresponds to the average of that of a single infected cell. It provides information about the time at which an infected cell will start and then cease virus production, and the rate of virus production per cell. In the “multiple-cycle” assay, cells are incubated with very few infectious virus, and these initially infected cells go on to infect others, which infect others, and so on, providing information about the rate and timing of virus spread.
The resulting toolkit, consisting of our computational modelling analysis of data from these 3 experiments, enables us to fully characterize any influenza A virus strain. For example, by conducting the experiment on a wild-type strain and its drug-resistant counterpart, we can determine exactly what aspects of the virus infection are affected by the mutation and by how many folds (e.g., this mutation allows infected cells to produce 3x more virus than those infected by the wild-type). By conducting the experiment in the presence and absence of a new antiviral drug, we can establish which step of the virus infection is affected by the drug, and the dependence on the dose administered. This makes it possible to predict the likelihood and likely timing of the appearance of drug resistance, or to make recommendations on optimal dose and treatment duration.
Our successes in these particular problems have generated a lot of interest and we are now hard at work to expand our methodology to other viruses like HIV and the respiratory syncytial virus. We are also looking to improve our model to increase the level of detail, for example adding the intracellular process of virus replication, and to improve experimental methodology to yield more robust, accurate experimental measurements. But there is so much to be done, and physicists are ideally trained to tackle these types of problems. I hope my induction into the College of the RSC will give my research the visibility required to capture the attention of more physicist and to recruit them into this exciting new field.
Catherine Beauchemin a fondé le domaine de la virophysique une branche de la biophysique qui met les outils théoriques et la rigueur quantitative de la physique au profit de la virologie. Son exploitation novatrice de modelés mathématique et de system multi-agent pour analyser la dynamique d’infections virales a entrainé des progresse significatifs en virologie théorique une meilleure compréhension des mécanismes clés des infections grippales et lui vaut sa réputation internationale.