From Eureka to Your World

Volume 4, Number 1
By Jake Brennan, Danielle Buch, Thierry Harris and Andrew Mullins; illustrations by Matt Forsythe

33 Ways* That McGill Research Saves Lives, Kills Weeds, Nabs Thieves… and More

* (and counting)

In the world of McGill research, creating new knowledge isn’t an end—it’s the means for developing the innovations that change our world. Lives are improved, and even saved, by ideas that make the long journey from lab to marketplace. And, yes, the commercialization of research stimulates our economy at the local, provincial, national and international levels.

We’ve collected just some of the ways McGill research has improved and is improving quality of life, from time-tested “greatest hits” to up-and-comers tipped to revolutionize tomorrow’s world—each a concrete manifestation of the University’s mission of “…providing service to society in those ways for which we are well suited by virtue of our academic strengths.”


  1. Developing new drugs “on the ground”—and using local resources—is critical to fighting parasitic diseases in African countries. Timothy Geary, the Canada Research Chair in Parasite Biotechnology, and Eliane Ubalijoro of McGill’s Institute for the Study of International Development are using a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish anti-parasitic drug development programs that draw upon existing resources in Botswana, South Africa and other countries in Africa. By promoting a simple technology for drug discovery, which uses microbes genetically engineered to express parasite proteins, researchers can easily test for the presence of anti-parasitic agents derived from indigenous botanical sources. This system can provide a sustainable way for African scientists to control the fate of locally obtained compounds, rather than relying on imported Western technologies (which, history has shown, are prohibitively difficult to maintain in working order) or agreements that favour Western partners unnecessarily. The ultimate goal is to empower African researchers to develop, market or out-license new, affordable cures for locally important parasitic infections, such as river blindness or lymphatic filariasis, which affect hundreds of millions of people, and malaria, which kills a million people (mostly children) a year in tropical countries.
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  3. If diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—the fourth leading cause of death in Canada—often the only thing your doctor can do to slow the fatal incurable disease is tell you to stop smoking. Now, work produced in McGill’s Department of Chemistry by Masad J. Damha might be able to reverse the effects of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. By modifying the structure of nucleic acids through chemical alterations of the sugar unit of the oligonucleotide chain, Damha’s research makes it possible to “shut down” critical genes that cause inflammation in the lungs. Damha and collaborators founded Anagenis Inc. in 1999 to exploit the powerful properties of these oligonucleotides. Topigen Pharmaceuticals, a company specializing in respiratory disorders, acquired Anagenis Inc. and the team’s gene silencing technology in 2004. Clinical development is projected in 2009.
  4. If you like Miles Davis, you’ll love… Kanye West? McGill psychology professor Daniel Levitin, with Yoshua Bengio and Douglas Eck from the Université de Montréal and Robert Gérin-Lajoie of the CIRANO interuniversity research centre, have developed software that can predict what songs listeners will like, based on a listener’s past preferences and personal information. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, some 1.4 billion songs were legally downloaded internationally in 2008; this new software, dubbed Shazam (not to be confused with the iPhone application of the same name), may help even more music fans find the sounds they like—even ones they haven’t yet heard. Amazon, Microsoft and Apple offer similar recommendation software, but Shazam is different because it extracts intelligent information, such as tempo, genre and mood, directly from songs. The researchers created the software using a database of over 100,000 songs donated by Warner Bros. The technology was licensed to Double V3, a developer of Internet and digital media applications, and is now owned by Nexio and Zanura.
  5. McGill psychology professor Mark Baldwin and his graduate students have tapped into the ever-evolving video game market with a series of self-esteem boosting video games called Mindhabits. The games, which are sold online and in stores (they’re particularly popular in European markets), help people by working on the psychological principles of association, inhibition and activation. In one game, players search for words related to friendship (drawing on the wealth of research showing that even small reminders of camaraderie help people deal with stress better); in another, they practice disengaging from unhelpful thoughts of social threat by clicking on smiling faces and ignoring frowns. A study published in a journal of the American Psychological Association demonstrated that just five minutes of daily play reduced players’ stress hormone levels by 17 per cent. Mindhabits also permits players to measure and track their confidence and stress levels on a day-to-day basis. In 2007, the games won the $1.3-million first prize in Telefilm’s Great Canadian Video Game competition; the prize money is being used to develop the game for play on several different game platforms. Mindhabits is expected to be available on Nintendo DS and mobile platforms later this year.
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  7. Build a more economical anti-theft tag, and the world—or at least its stores and libraries—will beat a path to your door. Security tags or labels all have two components: an active element (that’s the part that triggers alarms) and an element that turns off the active element. By combining electroplating technology with a specially formatted stainless-steel wire, McGill emeritus physics professor John Ström-Olsen and his company MXT have been able for the first time to integrate the active and deactivating components into a single element—making tags cheaper, and easier, to manufacture. The SSDW anti-theft tag, a happy accident stemming from an earlier product development that didn’t quite pan out, can be produced for about 60 per cent of the cost of other tags. SSDW came onto the market in 2005, and has already achieved significant, and growing, market penetration in Europe, North America and Asia.
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  9. For marine researchers, wetlands, coral reefs, swamps and shallow coastlines can be difficult to access—especially when you don’t want to upset the wildlife. The Aqua project, a collaboration between engineerting professor Greg Dudek and researchers at McGill’s Centre for Intelligent Machines, McGill biology professor Donald Kramer and his grad student Katrine Turgeon, and Michael Jenkin of York University, aims to change this by inventing three models of amphibious, video-data-gathering robots. The fully autonomous robots use six independently controlled flippers and acoustic sensor technology to gently navigate through waters deep or shallow. The robots are commercially available from Independent Robotics Inc.
  10. As electronic components in computers get smaller, smarter and greener, so grows hardware manufacturers’ need to assess potential uses of different nano-materials. The research group of McGill physics professor Hong Guo has developed a software program that they think will help. Using density functional theory and quantum transport theory, the software simulates the electrical properties of nano-structures, then models their performance in would-be large-scale systems, thus simulating computer transistor (as well as sensor- and photo-cell) performance. The use of such software is expected to help reduce the cost of manufacturing prototypes. McGill IP related to this software has been licensed to a Quebec start-up for commercial development.
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  12. The interactive web-based literacy tool Abracadabra has the potential to dramatically improve literacy across Canada. For children and parents, Abracadabra offers fun and engaging games and exercises in reading, spelling, vocabulary and comprehension. For educators, it offers resources such as manuals and literacy skills assessments to help target learning appropriately. Unlike other online literacy tools, Abracadabra is publicly available and free. McGill education professor and literacy expert Robert Savage designed the research behind Abracadabra. The project was directed by Philip Abrami from the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance at Concordia University, and included researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Lethbridge. Abracadabra is in use all over the world, and the team is now building a similar tool for developing writing skills.
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  14. In his 30-plus years in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at McGill’s Macdonald campus, plant science professor Alan K. Watson has searched for green alternatives to pesticides. His biopesticide research has taken him to farms all over Quebec, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where he’s scoured scoured the soil for organisms that prey on the weeds that cause millions of dollars in annual crop loss. From 1988 to 1998, Watson collaborated with the University of Guelph, the Nova Scotia Agriculture College, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, NSERC and industry partners on a federally funded dandelion control project. That work led to the discovery of Sclerotinia minor, a fungal pathogen, originally isolated from lettuce, which kills broad-leafed weeds (such as dandelions) but leaves earthworms, bees, birds, animals and humans unharmed. Watson patented Sclerotinia minor under exclusive licence to the University. In 2004, he founded the spin-off company Sarritor Inc. with his son Jeff and a consortium of lawn-control operators, whose interest had been sparked by municipal and provincial restrictions on chemical lawn pesticides such as 2,4-D. Sclerotinia minor is grown on ground-up barley seeds; the grains are then spread on crops during moist conditions in spring and fall. Look for Sclerotinia minor—under the name Sarritor—commercially in Canada this spring, and in the U.S. in coming years.
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  16. Imagine a hand-held machine like the tricorder in Star Trek that will measure fluid around the lung in a patient with pulmonary edema, just by pointing at the outside skin—or a fibre optic probe to monitor fetal and maternal health, or a device that measures tissue fitness in real time. Such non-invasive diagnostic tools are the goals of McGill chemistry professor David Burns and his biospectroscopy and biosensor research. During a sabbatical in 2000, he found he could predict the health of cows by using spectroscopic measurement technology to look at certain bio-markers in their milk. In later work in collaboration with Kristine Koski, director of McGill’s School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, Burns applied this discovery to the analysis of human amniotic fluid, for monitoring fetal development and assessing post-natal birth weight. Another collaboration, this one with McGill neurologist Hyman Schipper, used detection of oxidative modifications to blood components to correlate with the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In 2005, McGill licensed the broad patent portfolio to the start-up company Molecular Biometrics, co-founded by Burns, Koski and Schipper. Today, the company is using the technology in another Burns invention, this time with applications in the field of assisted reproductive technology.
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  18. Medical pioneers such as the Montreal Neurological Institute’s Wilder Penfield have become household names. But they wouldn’t have succeeded without the talented engineers who built the necessary new instruments. Take Leon Katz. Katz spent two years working with Penfield at the MNI before moving to the Jewish General Hospital to create Canada’s first medical radio-isotope lab. Katz helped pioneer the use of radioactive iodine to map the thyroid, a diagnostic technique still in wide use. An Officer of the Order of Canada, Katz also designed and operated the heart-lung bypass machine used during the first successful open-heart surgery in Canada in 1957. After inventing a wide range of medical devices himself, Katz joined Health and Welfare Canada, where he helped establish safety regulations for medical equipment.
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  20. More than merely annoying, mosquito bites mean death for up to three million people a year. The current manual malaria detection process is laborious, slow and requires on-site specialists—all disadvantages for a disease whose early detection dramatically reduces complications and death, but which is prevalent in poor, remote regions. McGill physics and chemistry professor Paul Wiseman hopes to brighten the situation—by adding colour. Wiseman and his colleagues are combining lasers and existing cell-sorting technology to create a prototype malaria detection device that will identify infected cells by the colour of light emitted from the malaria pigment hemozoin—all without manual intervention. Faster, cheaper and more portable, the prototype should be ready this fall, eagerly awaited by the half-billion people who contract malaria annually.
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  22. As an airplane climbs or descends through clouds, supercooled droplets hit the wings, fuselage, cockpit windows, external instruments and engines. These droplets either freeze immediately, or run along the surface before freezing toward the rear of the craft. These seemingly benign droplets can seriously compromise aerodynamics and handling, often with deadly results—that’s why each new airplane design must undergo long and elaborate experimental and flight-testing campaigns in order to be certified against in-flight icing. But how can you test the effect of in-flight icing without endangering lives and, more importantly, before you even have an airplane to fly? With mathematics. Mechanical engineering professor Wagdi George Habashi, director of the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) Lab at McGill, and his team developed the FENSAP-ICE software simulation system, which allows aerospace engineers to model how ice would affect aircraft in different weather conditions and at various speeds and altitudes. The system, which is marketed by Newmerical Technologies International, is the only one that creates 3-D predictions of: airflow over a complete plane, location of droplet impingement on its surfaces, shape of the resulting ice, the degraded behaviour of the airplane—and, crucially, the ideal amount of heating needed to anti-ice. The software allows engineers to modify their designs-in-progress, whether turboprops, helicopters or jets, resulting in safer aircraft. Companies use FENSAP-ICE across North America, Europe, China, Japan, India and Korea, and include giants such as Bombardier, Airbus, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, GE Aircraft Engines, Snecma Moteurs, Mitsubishi, AVIC, Bell Helicopter and Eurocopter
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  24. Probiotics are micro-organisms that help keep the gastrointestinal tract healthy. Satya Prakash, director of the Biomedical Technology and Cell Therapy Research Laboratory at McGill’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, is developing specialized artificial probiotic cells that will target specific ills, including high cholesterol, fatty liver disease and colon cancer. Prakash and McGill alumni Dr. Mitchell Jones and Ryan Elliot Jones created a spin-off a company called Micropharma Limited to commercialize these cells for use in human health. Some of these cells are now in various phases of human clinical trials.
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  26. Nuclear physicist Robert Bell was appointed McGill’s Ernest Rutherford Professor of Physics in 1960 and he lived up to the title, making important new contributions to the field that Rutherford essentially created. Chief among Bell’s accomplishments were the discovery of proton radioactivity (which led to new spectrometry techniques) and the invention of a timing method for measuring nuclear processes down to a fraction of a billionth of a second.
  27. During the early 1990s, new information started to emerge about programmed cell death (or apoptosis, a naturally occurring cause of cell death), and McGill biochemistry professor Gordon C. Shore took an interest in how PCD could be used as a cancer treatment. This investigation led Shore and biochemistry professor Phil Branton to start Gemin X Pharmaceuticals in 1998. Their lead product, a regulator of the PCD pathway called Obatoclax, has already proven helpful to patients with advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and is now in a major phase two randomized trial with patients suffering from small cell lung cancer. The drug is given intravenously, in combination with chemo, with the goal of substantially improving treatment effectiveness and patient survival.
  28. When Harold Randall Griffith was the chief of anesthesia at the Montreal Homeopathic Hospital in the early forties, surgery patients were still calmed using ether and other gases—resulting in an excruciating, often fatal, recovery process. Then Griffith heard that small amounts of a certain poisonous plant extraction successfully counteracted convulsions. Thus inspired, in 1942 he became the first person to use curare as a surgical anesthetic. Griffith proved that a carefully administered dosage of curare relaxed the body enough that other anesthetics could be dramatically—and safely—reduced. Curare paved the way for the creation of dozens of similar drugs still widely used in operating rooms today.
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  30. Synthesizing and testing compounds in the lab in the hopes of finding a potential new drug isn’t just “not green,” it’s prohibitively expensive. That’s why Nicolas Moitessier, associate professor in chemistry at McGill, and his team have designed computer software that investigates drug behavior “in silico.” This makes it possible to select molecules, from a library of over two million, that will bind to a specific protein target site—then virtually assess their synthetic feasibility and test for activity, all without dirtying a test tube, and for a fraction of the cost (and time) of traditional development. The FITTED (Flexibility Induced Through Targeted Evolutionary Description) docking program is now on version 2.6 and is being used by pharmaceutical companies ViroChem Pharma and MethylGene, and a new version is being developed for use by companies. A larger molecular discovery platform called Forecaster, which integrates FITTED and a number of other programs developed by the Moitessier group, will be available sometime this year.
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  32. Before Hans Selye came along, stress referred to pressure exerted on an object, not a person. In 1934, while searching for a new female hormone, the young McGill endocrinologist noticed similarities in how rats responded to injections, despite being dosed with different chemical compounds. Selye never found that new hormone, but he discovered something else: There is a biological response to stress. In 1936, he published ground-breaking research positing that the human body reacts to stress in stages. At first it responds in alarm and attempts to fight off the source of the stress. Then it tries to adapt to the stress. Finally, the stress produces an aging effect that leaves the body damaged. Selye’s impact wasn’t restricted to medical circles. Two of his books, The Stress of Life and Stress Without Distress, became international bestsellers.
  33. In 1965, McGill professor Samuel Freedman and doctoral candidate Phil Gold discovered a protein they called carcinoembryonic antigen. The body produces CEA in response to certain cancers (particularly those in the gastrointestinal tract, colon and rectum), making the protein’s presence a useful tumour marker. The CEA blood test remains one of the most widely used methods for gauging the spread of cancer and detecting post-surgery recurrence.
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  35. The daring and gifted surgeon Wilder Penfield was the driving force behind the creation of the Montreal Neurological Institute in 1934. Penfield developed the Montreal Procedure, a revolutionary style of brain surgery in which epilepsy patients remained fully conscious (though anesthetized) in order to pinpoint the source of seizures—and his pioneering efforts set the stage for ongoing innovation at the MNI. In 2007, the Canadian government named the MNI as one of seven Centres of Excellence in Commercialization and Research in recognition of innovative and outstanding work. The government has since funded 37 projects that emphasize cutting edge basic research, translational advances and commercialization. This research includes creating technology for the automatic detection of drug-resistant epilepsy lesions, a pre-surgical fMRI brain-mapping unit and a computerized device to measure simple and complex hand and arm movements. These projects have already started to yield significant benefits, accelerating new research in the biological basis of neurological disease, neuroengineering and translational and applied neuroscience.
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  37. When Maude Abbott first joined McGill’s Department of Pathology as the assistant curator of its medical museum, little was known about how to surgically repair damaged hearts. Through her work at the museum, Abbott collected and studied the hearts of people who had died of cardiac problems. She also scoured historical records for accounts of heart disease, meticulously cataloguing and identifying cardiac anomalies identified during autopsies. The result was the 1936 Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease, which laid the foundation for modern heart surgery by giving physicians a detailed understanding of the anatomy of heart disease.
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  39. In 1911, German scientist Otto Röhm invented a resilient, flexible and transparent substance. Trouble was, it was hard to find one key ingredient: methyl methacrylate. Enter William Chalmers, a McGill graduate student working in chemistry professor George Whitby’s lab. Chalmers devised a new method for producing methyl methacrylate using acetone and hydrogen cyanide, both readily available. Knowing that Imperial Chemical Industries in Britain was doing similar work, Chalmers sold them his patent. One of the first commercial uses for ICI’s Perspex—now known as Plexiglas—was to make see-through machine gun turrets for B-19 bombers. Today, Plexiglas is used in hockey rinks (the transparent barriers protecting onlookers from misdirected pucks), aquariums, contact lenses and motorcycle helmets.
  40. An estimated 25 per cent of Canadian hospitals use the Harmonie electro-encephalography machine, designed by Montreal Neurological Institute professor Jean Gotman, to help in the diagnosis of epilepsy. (And there are many more Harmonies in use outside Canada than in.) The Harmonie EEG machine was brought to market in 1986 by Stellate Systems, the very first McGill spin-off company; it is now marketed by Alpine Biomed. Gotman continues to research epilepsy, combining magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with EEG to examine images of the brain at the exact time of onset of seizure activity, in the hope of better understanding the brain structures involved and delineating the foci prior to surgery.
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  42. In a 1901 lecture, McGill physics professor Ernest Rutherford presented a startling theory—namely, that radioactivity was the product of fracturing atoms—and was duly heckled by a young researcher from the Department of Chemistry. It wasn’t a promising start, but within months that skeptic, Frederick Soddy, became Rutherford’s chief collaborator in a research effort that led to both men winning the Nobel Prize (Rutherford in 1908, Soddy in 1921). Flying in the face of the widespread belief that atoms were indivisible and unchangeable, the duo demonstrated that atoms could spontaneously decay, forming new kinds of matter as a consequence. Though many scientific contemporaries initially scorned the notion as alchemy, Rutherford’s theories quickly gained wide acceptance and he is universally recognized today as the father of nuclear physics and, by extension, nuclear energy.
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  44. We’re quick to laud medical innovations that heal, but think less about the art and science of preserving dignity and alleviating suffering at the end of life. When McGill surgical oncologist Balfour Mount looked into the medical literature surrounding care for the terminally ill, he was shocked to discover it was almost non-existent. Inspired by the work of British hospice pioneer Dame Cicely Saunders, Mount created North America’s first palliative care unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital and popularized palliative care as a medical specialty—he is even credited with coining the phrase. The RVH Manual on Palliative/Hospice Care, published in 1982, has served as a guidebook for similar programs around the world.
  45. Cells don’t nap. When McGill cell biologist Charles Philippe Leblond made this declaration in the forties, most of his colleagues were convinced that cells were only occasionally active. Leblond believed cells were always on the go (he was right). Thankfully, he had evidence to back him up, courtesy of a technology he helped perfect: autoradiography, a process that involved injecting radioactive material into organisms and using these “tracers” to study where and how cellular processes took place. While autoradiography was first created in 1924, it was initially an erratic technique. By using thinner emulsion coats on the glass slides being analyzed and better radioactive isotopes to highlight the activity being examined, Leblond and his collaborators improved the ability of scientists to monitor cellular activity by a hundredfold. Autoradiography continues to be used today by molecular biologists studying the localization of genes and DNA sequences.
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  47. When it rains, it pours…or sleets, or hails, or… How much and what kind of precipitation falls makes a big difference to both people and the aquatic critters left to deal with the runoff that sewage systems can’t handle. Enter Isztar Zawadzki, former director of McGill’s J.S. Marshall Weather Radar Observatory. His ARMOR (Adjustment of Rain from Models with Radar) software, licensed to the U.S. company Weather Decision Technologies, combines new radar techniques with forecasting-error analyses from the previous 24 hours to predict the form and volume of precipitation in the next 10-12 hours more accurately than ever thought possible. Cities around the world are using the software, thus mitigating water pollution, infrastructure damage and flooding fatalities. Because when it pours, it doesn’t have to flood.
  48. If it can be said that the road of modern biology and medicine is paved with DNA, then Kelvin Ogilvie is this era’s Henry Ford. His “gene machine,” invented in 1980 while he was a chemistry professor at McGill, fast-tracked the DNA splicing process. What once took days now took mere hours, opening up new possibilities in endeavours ranging from genetically modified crops to medical research. Ogilvie was also the first to chemically synthesize RNA in 1986, a process then used to develop Ganciclovir, a drug now used to treat a form of herpes that attacks AIDS and cancer patients and other people with weakened immune systems.
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  50. So long, dumb glass. Hello, smart plastic. Research by electrical and computer engineering professor Ishiang Shih and materials chemistry professor Mark Andrews has paved the way for thin, flexible films with embedded optical, electrical and mechanical intelligence. Ultrathin displays made from their smart plastics promise to be lighter, stronger and more cost-efficient than the LCD screens found in today’s personal computers and laptops—and might even lead to a computer screen you can roll up like a yoga mat. The award-winning “digital plastic” is being developed by a McGill spin-off called Plastic Knowledge, co-founded by the two professors. Financed by Montreal’s Inovia Capital, the company recently signed a memorandum of understanding with an international plastic film manufacturer to advance product development.
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  52. In 1956, Thomas Chang, a McGill physiology undergraduate, went about constructing the world’s first artificial blood cells—in his residence room. With a cheap perfume atomizer and the permission of his tolerant roommates, Chang managed to construct tiny plastic membranes that could contain hemoglobin, the compound in red blood cells that transports oxygen and whisks away carbon dioxide. His success—he was the rare student to publish a paper as the sole author in the prestigious journal Science—helped spawn the realm of biotechnology. Chang has been director of the Artificial Cells and Organs Research Centre at McGill since the 1960s. His breakthroughs in metabolic disorders, treatment of drug poisoning, drug carriers, nanomedicine and other areas have become widely used.
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  54. Bernard Belleau saved millions of lives and never knew it. Launched in March 1987, AZT (Zidovudine) was the only option for suppressing HIV, but the drug had a dark side: Patients not only suffered debilitating side effects, they quickly grew resistant to its anti-HIV properties. So the McGill chemistry professor was already hunting for an alternative. Belleau led the charge to synthesize 3TC (Lamivudine), a compound that Mark Wainberg, now director of the McGill University AIDS Centre, showed could stunt HIV’s tenacious rate of replication—without the drawbacks of AZT. Belleau died in 1989, six years before the last stage of 3TC clinical trials ended. The anti-viral drug, which was marketed by BioChem Pharma Inc. (co-founded by Belleau), proved a turning point in developing the HIV-fighting “cocktail” known as HAART (Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy) that has helped curb the AIDS mortality rate.
  55. They don’t call it labour for nothing. Although childbirth is never going to be a cakewalk, a software package is easing the strain by helping delivery teams make better, faster decisions. Developed by obstetrics professor Dr. Emily Hamilton, CALM (Computer Aided Labour Monitoring) collects and analyzes mom and fetus vital signs in real time. Used by well over 100 hospitals in Canada and the U.S., CALM allows clinicians, whether on-site or via a Web interface, to determine more accurately the need for interventions such as caesarean section—and set the stage for healthier, happier birth days.

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