Many new drugs shrouded in secrecy

Some drugs fast-tracked through the regulatory approval process for life-threatening illnesses such as breast cancer and multiple sclerosis are still being sold under conditional licences, with the government keeping any progress toward meeting requirements secret, wrote the Toronto Star Nov. 25.

Health Canada introduced a policy a dozen years ago that allows drug manufacturers to start selling some medications that show promising early results in treating dangerous or debilitating diseases before all the usual conditions for licensing are met.

But unless conditions are met, or the conditional licence is suspended, there is no way for patients or physicians to find out how close – or how far – a pharmaceutical company is to meeting the requirements Health Canada demanded.

“There is no information publicly available as to why the conditions haven’t been fulfilled,” Dr. Joel Lexchin, a professor in the School of Health Policy & Management in York University’s Faculty of Health, said in an interview last week.

Lexchin said he is concerned the problem will continue once Health Canada moves to a progressive licensing scheme, as it put forward in proposed amendments to the Food and Drugs Act in a 2008 bill that died with the last federal election and has yet to be reintroduced. “Health Canada may or may not be vigorous in enforcing the requirement to do additional studies and it may not release the progress on these post-marketing studies to the public,” Lexchin said.

Black Friday psychology: Why we go mad for deals

Creating a sense of urgency is one trick retailers use to get people into the mood to spend, wrote Nov. 24. Other enticements include giveaways, free gift-wrapping and similar services.

Peter Darke, marketing professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, carried out a study in which volunteers were given $10 and asked to make a purchase at a University store. Some of them got to keep the change, while others had to give it back to the researchers. The researchers arranged it so that some volunteers would pay full price for the item, some would get 25 per cent off, and others would get 50 per cent off.

Unsurprisingly, those who got to keep the change were happier with the better deal they got. But even those who didn’t get to keep the money got a charge when the discount was big enough. When those people got a 50 per cent discount, Darke said, they were just as happy as the people who got to keep the money.

But deals don’t always leave people thrilled. If consumers don’t know why a product is discounted, they may assume it’s somehow faulty, Darke said.

Gaming the brain

In a study published last month in the journal, Cortex, researchers from York University in Canada asked young men who played a minimum of four hours of action video games a week for several years (i.e., gamers) to complete a number of complex motor skills requiring significant hand-eye coordination, wrote Psychology Today online Nov. 24. While they were doing this, their brains were scanned using fMRI. The researchers also asked males of the same age and background who did not have extensive video game experience (non-gamers) to perform the same tasks.

What the researchers found was that the gamers’ brains looked different than the non-gamers’ brains when preparing to do the motor tasks.

The finding that playing action video games can change how the brain is organized to plan complex motor tasks is exciting because it suggests that video game play may enhance folks’ ability to learn complex activities like laparoscopic surgery – activities that benefit from the ability to have intricate control over hand and eye movements. Video game play may also help to combat movement deficits seen in the early stages of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s by helping the brain reorganize itself to stave off movement errors.

The take home point? Not all gaming is bad. In fact, some video game play in childhood may help to develop skills that are important for complex motor activities people often encounter later in life.

York Region getting vitality check-up

Living in York Region: A Community Indicators Project, a measure of neighbourhood well-being and sustainability from your perspective, will launch in February, wrote Nov. 24.

The ambitious three-year project is driven by the York Region Community Foundation in partnership with York University. It’s funded by a $164,000 Ontario Trillium Foundation grant.

The initial consultation was heartening, said Michael Johnny, York’s manager, knowledge mobilization, who is a member of the project committee.

The group was encouraged by the positive tone and by how much people want to be part of the solution, he said. “The sense is that the project is not about individuals or municipalities, but rather what we can do to move the region forward.”

The group’s first report will be released next October. The project team wants to look beyond that first study, Johnny said. “We’re exploring sustainability in the hope that this isn’t just a three-year project,” he said.

Write a love letter – to yourself

Emily Dickinson wrote that letters are the “joy of the Earth,” and anyone who has ever received a passionate love letter would likely agree, wrote Dr. Laura Berman in the Chicago Sun-Times Nov. 24. However, a new study from York University suggests that the best type of love letter is the one you write to yourself.

Participants were asked to compose a love letter every night for one week. The recipients of these love letters were none other than the authors themselves.

Whether they wrote compassionate letters (in which they were asked to write a comforting letter as they would to a distressed friend), or an optimistic letter (in which they stressed that happy times were ahead), researchers found these love letters worked to boost the authors’ moods.

Aecon Inc. wins multi-million dollar subway extension contract

A consortium lead by Aecon Inc. has won the near-$3-million contract for tunnelling the first phase of the Spadina subway extension, wrote AM640 News online Nov. 24.

It will stretch from the current subway terminus at Downsview station, across Sheppard to Finch Avenues Aecon will work alongside McNally Construction and Kiewit Construction to dig the twin 2.6-kilometre tunnel beginning next month through to 2014. Subsequent contracts will be issued for tunnelling the section from Finch through York University and north to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre.

Canadian earth observation efforts increase

As Canadians bump up their involvement in space-based earth observation, one of the pressing problems looming is how to de-orbit those satellites once their missions are completed, wrote SpaceRef Canada Nov. 24. This was one of the themes of the Earth Observation track at this past weekend’s Canadian Space Summit.

A number of other universities stepped to the podium to talk about their research. York University’s Yunlong Lin, professor of space engineering in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about a small satellite constellation mission to measure greenhouse gases.

The group of three satellites would keep the sun always at the same position relative to themselves as they circle the planet, 15 kilometres of day, imaging a swath of land 250 kilometres square. “We designed it so that almost all the major cities in the northern hemisphere can get the 250 by 250 measurements,” Lin said.

From newbie to manager in four years

Leo Vallescura (BA ‘98), a Canadian brokerage-industry star, says the recipe for success in online trading is straightforward: passion for the stock market, hands-on experience and respect for compliance, wrote The Globe and Mail online Nov. 25, in a feature profile of the York grad.

Following this formula, in just four years Vallescura has transformed himself from a newbie in the financial services industry to the trading manager at Toronto-based Questrade.

“I love coming to work – it’s a passion,” Vallescura, 35, said in an interview from his suburban office, explaining how he has become the head of Canada’s largest independent online trading service. For the second consecutive year, 11-year-old Questrade was ranked first by the financial analysis firm Investor Economics, based on growth of assets and trade volume. It is the only Canadian firm of 11 surveyed in September that increased its assets during the second quarter, when the markets and financial services companies were slogging through the after-effects of the recession.

Vallescura first cut his trading teeth while he was a 19-year-old student at York University, after his parents gave him some stocks as a gift. “I got to know how the market works,” he recalls. “I basically got hooked on tracking the pricing and I just dived right into all this information, and got completely focused on every aspect of trading.” Back then, Vallescura would run home to read the stock pages of the newspaper, as online trading was in its infancy.

After graduating with a psychology degree from York’s Faculty of Arts, he worked in his family’s construction business while taking the Canadian Securities Course. After years of applying to financial services jobs, Questrade hired him for its client services department, where he handled customer questions, withdrawals and complaints. A few months later, he became an accredited trader after taking courses in derivatives fundamentals and options licensing. He soon worked his way up to supervisor before getting promoted to manager a year and a half ago.

Scott Thompson: This Kid is alright

At 51, Scott Thompson (BFA ’82) is not as happy-go-lucky as he once seemed to be; he’s a bit sadder and a whole lot wiser, wrote Richard Ouzounian in the Toronto Star Nov. 25, in a column about the former Kids in the Hall actor.

“I was sent to work in the Philippines [with Canada World Youth]. The first time I had ever been away from home, the first time I had ever been a racial minority. I was dropped into a family of 14 living in a cinderblock and I had to shit in a hole and push a water buffalo away to do it. I loved it.

“It made me realize that people were exactly the same around the world and wanted the same things. That’s when I shed white guilt because I also realized that there is racism everywhere.”

Thompson returned to Canada with his newfound knowledge. He enrolled in York University for three years but was asked to leave for being “disruptive.” He kicked around the comedy scene for a while, then came together with The Kids in the Hall, the last person to join the group.

Arts Awards handed out

The Barrie Arts Awards were handed out last week to six creative residents, wrote Nov. 25.

One of two Emerging Artist Awards was handed out to Leigh-Anne Martin (BFA Spec. Hons. ’09), a vocalist who has studied at York University and recently auditioned for the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Society less tolerant of domestic violence

Domestic violence doesn’t have to happen, wrote Chatham This Week Nov. 24.

That’s the message of Michael Kaufman, author, speaker, consultant and former York University professor who travels the world trying to engage men and boys about the need to put an end to violence.

He was a keynote speaker Nov. 18 at a workshop called Come Together. The workshop, held at the Portuguese Club, addressed violence in youth and was organized by the Chatham-Kent Domestic Violence Coordinating Committee. The workshop attracted about 125 participants, including educators, social workers, Crown and police officials and high school students.

“It’s critical that men speak out,” said Kaufman. “Real men don’t have to control the women around us. It destroys relationships and it’s unacceptable.”

Kaufman said domestic violence is considered by many people to be a “private matter” and he called for a change in attitude where people speak up and take action when they’re aware of, or suspect, acts of domestic violence. He points out that no one would call it a private matter if they witnessed a store being robbed, but many would do nothing if they saw a woman or child being abused.