Of mice and monoplanes

By James Martin

Immunity battle of the sexes

When it comes to fighting infection, Annie Oakley was right: anything men can do, women can do better. The body’s first reaction to a viral intruder is to ramp up inflammation – but an enzyme called Caspase-12 has the bad habit of blocking this helpful process. According to a new study by Maya Saleh, Garabet Yeretssian, Karine Doiron and Wei Shao of the Centre for the Study of Host Resistance at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, estrogen appears to counter Caspase-12, giving women a sizable advantage when it comes to fending  off disease. The researchers found that mice bred withoutthe Caspase-12-producing gene were extremely resistant to infection. Female mice with the gene were also good at staying healthy. As for male Caspase-12 mice? Not so much.“We were very surprised by these results,” Saleh told CTV. ca News. The Daily Mail, BBC News, the Telegraph, the Mirror and Scotland’s Sunday Herald also picked up on the research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “We were also able to locate where the estrogen receptor binds on the gene in order to block its expression, which indicates that the hormone exerts direct action in this case.”

The team is confident that these findings are applicable to humans, opening the door to disease-fighting gene therapies. But Saleh is less confident that men will buy the cure. “Will men be amenable to the idea of

being treated with an exclusively female hormone?”

Babies ❤ folic acid

“Heart smart” has become a marketing buzzphrase – but, in the case of Canadian breads and pastas, there may be something to it. In 1998, Canada made it mandatory to add folic acid to flour-based products. A study conducted by McGill  medicine professor Dr. Louise Pilote, PhD candidate Raluca Ionescu-Ittu, Dr. Ariane J. Marelli of the McGill Adult Unit for Congenital Heart Disease Excellence and Dr. Andrew S. Mackie of the University of Alberta, shows a corresponding reduction in the number of Quebec babies born with heart

defects; the study, published in the British Medical Journal, is the strongest evidence to date that if a pregnant woman has sufficient folic acid intake, her baby’s heart will be stronger. (It is already well-established that folic acid consumption dramatically cuts the risk of babies being born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida.) The study caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times, the Telegraph, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and the Montreal Gazette.

The researchers examined 1.3 million Quebec birth records between 1990 and 2005, comparing the prevalence of severe heart defects before and after the introduction of folic acid fortification. They found that, seven years after fortification was introduced, fetal heart defects had dropped by 6.2 per cent; the researchers suggest the drop may be even higher, but was offset by an increase in other factors (e.g, obesity, pre-gestational diabetes) which increase the risk of congenital heart defects, and are calling

for further population-based studies to confirm the findings. “Given that severe congenital heart defects require complex surgical interventions in infancy and are associated with high infant mortality rates,” Pilote

wrote in the study, “even a small reduction in the overall risk will significantly reduce the costs associated

with the medical care of these patients and the psychological burden on patients and their families.”

Wing dynasty

Ten years ago, a small group of volunteers began rebuilding vintage airplanes in the Old Stone Barn on McGill’s Macdonald campus. On Saturday, May 23, the snip of a red ribbon officially transformed that barn into the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre. Visitors can now watch aero-enthusiasts work on various

restoration and recreation projects – including a life-size working replica of a Blériot monoplane, which in 1910 became the first plane to fly over Montreal. The CAHC hopes to test-fly the Blériot at the end of the summer in preparation for a 100th anniversary flight in 2010. The centre also features collections of memorabilia and an aviation-themed art gallery.

“It’s been a long time coming,” CAHC board member Bruce McLeod told the Montreal Gazette. “We are very proud of what has been accomplished.”