Revolutionary developments by McGill researchers in the past year

Quebec-based researchers publish over 16,000 peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals on an annual basis. For the past 26 years, the magazine Quebec Science has taken on the difficult endeavour of choosing which of these thousands of discoveries deserves to be honoured for both their methodology and impact on the scientific community. In 2018, the magazine highlighted 10 major findings, some of which were completed at McGill University.

Earth before the arrival of animal life

When atmospheric oxygen reacts with pyrite, a common mineral, sulfate salts form. These salts contain the oxygen atoms found in the atmosphere at the time of the reaction’s occurrence. Using this information, Peter Crockford, then-graduate student at McGill, measured oxygen isotope values from samples of 1.4 billion-year-old lake deposits to determine what the Earth’s ancient atmosphere and biosphere contained prior to the emergence of animal life.   

Based on these measurements, Crockford and his team found that primary production, the production of oxygen and organic matter by cyanobacteria, algae, and other organisms, was extremely low 1.4 billion years ago. These findings suggest a limit for the complexity of life that could have existed during this period based on the amount of organic matter available.

For Crockford, the publication was a culmination of long days in the lab measuring oxygen isotopes in the sulfates.

“[The process] begins with weighing out samples and putting them into a chamber,” Crockford wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “We then add a reactive gas to get rid of any oxygen in the chamber. Then, we shoot our sample with lasers to liberate oxygen from sulfate ions and, finally, purify the oxygen and measure it on a mass spectrometer.”

According to Crockford, published findings are only the beginning. Having an established effective methodology allows for scientists to apply the same strategy to over 40 other geologic formations, which, together, span time periods from 2.5 billion years ago to 500 million years ago and account for over half of the Earth’s history.

A treatment for cerebral malaria

Every year, over 500 million people are affected by malaria, a life-threatening disease caused by a parasite from the Plasmodium family. One of the most drastic complications of malaria is cerebral malaria, a severe neurological effect characterized by brain swelling, coma, and often death. Surviving patients, often children, sustain brain injuries and permanent neurological impairments.

A recent study published by McGill researchers found that a natural product called rocaglate, which is derived from the aglaia plant species, was able to block blood-stage parasite replication in mouse models, presenting a possible treatment to prevent malarial parasite proliferation. In these mice, rocoglates were able to reduce neurological inflammation and increase survival of those rodents infected with drug-resistant parasites. Although not yet tested on human subjects, this essential research shows the immense potential of this class of compounds for the treatment of cerebral malaria.

PapSeek: Early detection of ovarian and endometrial cancers

Early detection is an important part of cancer treatment, especially in the case of ovarian and uterine cancers. A pap smear is an essential test that most women should begin receiving every three years starting at age 21. Usually, a normal pap smear will collect cells from the cervix to detect cancerous cells in this area.

Lucy Gilbert, a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology  and the Department of Oncology, developed PapSeek, a test that collects samples not only from the cervix, but also from the uterus. The technique extends a brush into the uterus to collect cells closer to the region where cancers could originate, increasing the sensitivity of the test and the likelihood of detecting cancer from the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus.

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