Author Archives: jjmaclean

A tangerine a day keeps the doctor away?

As populations across the developed world age, policy-makers have become increasingly concerned with methods of controlling the rapid-rise of healthcare costs. Rising levels of insulin resistance, a physiological condition characterized by a decreased ability of the hormone insulin to lower blood sugar levels, and it’s associated maladies of obesity, increased blood lipid levels and diabetes increasingly present one of if not the greatest source of rising healthcare expenditures.

Presently aside from diet and exercise there are few widespread effective treatment for insulin resistance, a situation that has posed a concern for policymakers for quite sometime. However, recent research at the University of Western Ontario in partnership with the Ontario Heart and Stroke Foundation and Pfizer Canada’s Cardiovascular Research Program might just be the first step towards developing one.

The researchers have discovered that a flavonoid chemical, found in tangerines, known as Nobilitin when fed orally to genetically-engineered mice appeared to have helped them stave off the development of insulin resistance, as compared to a control group not given Nobilitin, when fed a high-fat/high-sugar diet.

After eating, a spike in blood-sugar levels leads to the secretion of insulin, a hormone used to control carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body, specifically insulin slows down the use of stored fat-cells as an energy source and the body switches to glucose. In a healthy individual this process is self-regulating, after the food has been digested, insulin levels will drop and the body will once again resume using stored fat as an energy source. In individuals with pre-diabetes however, the insulin receptors become phosphorylated during the uptake of insulin rendering them inoperable.  The body becomes less-effective at controlling blood-sugars, and levels can rise causing adverse health-effects.

Nobilitin appears to activate the same receptor-response mechanism as insulin without causing phosphorylation. Additionally Nobilitin prevents the release of VLDLs (very low density lipoproteins) an unhealthy fat associated with heart disease. When combined, these two factors appears to of prevented the mice from developing insulin-resistance and staved off the development of diabetes, obesity and coronary disease.

While a significant amount of further investigation remains to be done to determine if the findings are transferable to humans, this research is an exciting development nonetheless, towards a potential cure for insulin resistance and type-II diabetes mellitus.


Mulvihill, E. E., Assini, J. M., Lee, J. K., Allister, E. M., Sutherland, B. G., Koppes, J. B., . . . Huff, M. W. (2011). Nobiletin attenuates VLDL overproduction, dyslipidemia, and atherosclerosis in mice with diet-induced insulin resistance. Diabetes, doi:10.2337/db10-0589

NHS Choices. (2011). Tangerine chemical good for mice. Retrieved 04/06, 2011, from

Humans and Monkeys: Are we even more alike than we think?

They are our closest relatives. We share over 93% of our genetic makeup and likely a common ancestor, yet it’s often thought that humans are the only animals capable of reason and original thought. Sure some monkeys such as chimpanzees and the like can use sign language and operate computers but those are all skills they’ve been taught by human researchers right?  They wouldn’t have been able to teach themselves right?

Whilst it has been known for quite some time that humans are not the only primates capable of using tools, it was only in 2004 that researchers from Cambridge University uncovered definitive evidence that wild monkeys make use of tools to aid in their food gathering efforts.  The techniques observed by the capuchin monkeys were relatively basic however it was the first solid evidence of non-human primates using tools without any instruction.

More recent research reported in the latest Royal Society Biology Letters, has ratcheted up our level of understanding of just how ingenious our fellow primates can be. Scientists from the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Brazil have discovered a new technique used by the blond capuchin monkey (Cebus flavius) to fish for termites out of trees that has never been observed in any other species before nor even thought of by humans!

The technique involves the capuchin tapping the side of a termite branch, before breaking off a branch and using a rotating motion to insert the stick into the nest to retrieve the insects. The tapping appears to set the members of the insect colony ‘on-alert’ enhancing the response towards the ensuing breakage. As soon as the break does occur the “soliders” of the termite colony swarm the damaged point and are easily retrieved by the monkey.

After observing this technique the researchers tried it out for themselves and found that it was indeed an extremely effective method of retrieving insects. Two aspects in particular increase its efficiency. As mentioned earlier the monkey taps the outer surface of the nest before burrowing in. This appears to place the hive on ‘alert’ and improves their response time to the eventual penetration by the branchlet. Additionally, while the rotating motion they used to burrow their way into the nest did not appear to increase the speed at which the insects were caught or the overall catch, it did markedly reduce the likelihood of breaking the stick allowing the monkey to re-use it over and over again.

It is not yet known, exactly how the monkeys discovered the technique, but the observation of such a novel method for food gathering is nonetheless an exciting discovery and provides a further demonstration of just how similar we truly are to our primate cousins.

Viegas, Jennifer (2011, Mar 5th). Monkey Invent New Fishing Technique Retrieved from:

BBC NEWS (2004, December 9th) Tool use confirmed in monkeys Retrieved from:

To boldly go ever after? The search for habitable planets.

Have you ever dreamed of exploring outer space? Of reaching up into the stars to venture where no person has gone before, exploring strange and exotic worlds all the while saving mankind from imminent destruction? From Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica the imaginative world of science fiction has painted a picture of the galaxy quite dissimilar from our own. Theirs is a universe filled with habitable-world’s innumerable star systems surrounded by small rocky planets. While this makes for compelling story-lines, until recently it was thought that this view couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Earlier this month it was released that NASA’s Kepler Mission, named in honour of German astronomer Johannes Kepler whose work laid the foundations for the laws of planetary motion, had discovered its first so-called Goldilock’s planets. A Goldilock’s planet is a terrestrial (rocky) planet of a similar size to Earth in an area known as the Circumstellar Habitable Zone. A system’s CHZ is a spherical region of space surrounding a star where a planet could theoretically possess the life’s essential element, water. In this zone, planets receive enough solar radiation to keep the bulk of the water above freeing, but not so much as to boil. In addition to being in the CHZ a Goldilock’s planet must also be within a region known as the Galactic Habitable Zone (GHZ). Along the same lines as the CHZ the GHZ is a region of the galaxy where it is thought that there is the highest possibility of finding habitable planets. It is far enough away from the galactic core as to not be severely affected by the high-energy radiation common there, but not too far as to be devoid of the heavier elements essential for the formation of terrestrial planets. In the Milky Way this regions starts at around 25,000 lights years from the galactic core and extends to about 32, 000 ly.

While the candidate planets discovered by the Kepler Mission will require careful follow-up to determine if they are indeed Earth-like planets, preliminary observations suggest that five of the fifty-four planet candidates in the CHZ are indeed terrestrial, and similar in size to our own. A new device from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics will likely play a key-role in verifying the characteristics of these new worlds. Knows as the High-Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher or HARPS-North for short, the instrument soon to be installed in the Canary Islands will enable researchers to measure the tiny radial-velocity signal produced by small planets like the Earth. This data allows researchers to determine the densities of the target-planets enabling them to distinguish terrestrial worlds from their more common gas-based brethren.

While these five planets represent a tiny fraction of the over 1200 planet-candidates found thus far during the analysis of over 150,000 star systems discovered by the Kepler Mission, that they were all located in such a minuscule fraction of the galaxy suggests that a universe of boundless habitable-worlds might not be too outside the realm of possibilities.

References Cited:

  1. NASA (2011, February 2). NASA finds Earth-size planet candidates in habitable zone, six planet systemScienceDaily. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from­/releases/2011/02/110202133321.htm
  2. ANI. (2011, 2011-02-15). New device to help confirm kepler’s planetary candidates. The Wall Street Journal,
  3. Mori. (2007). Fermi , what paradox? (image credit). Retrieved 02/15, 2011, from

Network Neutrality: An Essential Ingredient for Continued Internet Innovation

From the boardroom to the legislature, an important policy debate is taking place. Even though it has the potential to fundamentally reshape nearly every aspect of our modern digital lives: how we connect, communicate and entertain ourselves, the public remains woefully misinformed. The debate is over Network Neutrality, and the related issues of packet prioritization and usage-based billing. In recent years, ISPs who have traditionally just provided network-access have become increasingly interested in “value-added” services, such as internet-telephony or IPTV. Rather than having these services compete on merit, many ISPs have decided to degrade the network performance of competing offerings, prioritize their-own traffic, and to limit monthly bandwidth. Net-neutrality is the opposite of all that. It is a network design principle mandating that all packets, or parcels of data, should be treated equally, sent or received on a first come first service basis.  A carrier should not be allowed to prioritize traffic.

I was reading an article on Google News the other day (Internet groups criticize CRTC bandwidth ruling) and upon browsing through the comments was struck by the misinformation I saw.  Network carriers such as Bell Canada (TSX:BCE) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) have somewhat successfully argued that these network-management techniques are required to justify investment in expanded infrastructure, with John Thorne, deputy general counsel for Verizon being quoted as saying that: “The network builders are spending a fortune constructing and maintaining the networks that Google intends to ride on with nothing but cheap servers.”  The debate has been manipulated so that the battle for bandwidth looks appears to be pitting the everyday citizen trying to access their email and the college student down the block using P2P programs 24/7. While arguments such as this have some merit, they are for the most part facetious, have severe long-term consequences and from a public policy point of view not well thought out.

Part of what has made the internet-era so incredible is the dynamism that comes from enabling anyone with a great idea to reach the entire world. Take a moment and think about how the web has changed your life for the better.  Think of the products and services you use most often. Now imagine a world without them. Let’s say your ISP, which has an IPTV service, has decided to cap your monthly download limit and charge overage fees, while allowing you to access their IPTV services for no extra charge. Companies like Netflix and YouTube just couldn’t compete.  They’d be priced out of the market.  Or what if large incumbents could pay for priority access; services such as Skype might be given a lower priority then your ISP’s VOIP service. You forgo Skype not because it’s an inferior product but because its call quality has purposefully been degraded. For these reasons, amongst others, it is essential that the public be well informed about the facts surrounding network neutrality and how this seemingly trivial policy debate has the potential to dramatically alter the world’s economic landscape for decades to come.

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