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December 2020 Edition

Chair's Message

Ruth Ross
Dear Faculty, Staff, Post docs and Students,

I’m writing as we are in the midst of another lockdown in the City of Toronto. I wanted to send my appreciation to everyone. Over the last few months, even in the face of such enormous challenges, I have been heartened by so many hopeful things. 

Everything that is done in this world, is done by hope’, Martin Luther King Jr.

A great example is the VIP day this year, which was a wonderful event, exceptionally well organized, with outstanding science. Thank you to the PGSA organisers who rose to the occasion and pulled off an outstanding event. We celebrated our exceptional award winners and had a very thought-provoking seminar from Aled Edwards.

Dr McPherson and Diana Kam have made a stellar effort to arrange and host many thesis defences and the first-year seminars, all delivered seamlessly via Zoom. All the presenters have been amazing – courageously battling on despite the impeccably timed invading cat, or dog, or baby…….and of course the inevitable “you’re frozen”, “you’re muted”, “you cut out for a moment”. I’m constantly impressed by our cutting-edge research, which is making a real impact. Many congratulations to everyone who successfully graduated from our programs this year.

Kudos to research staff, post-docs, graduate students, and PIs who have successfully returned to productive research, coping with multitudinous COVID safeguards and restricted to 50% lab occupancy. Despite all this, producing impressive data and moving forward with publications and theses - albeit it slower than we would all like. Jenn Robinson and Nesma Agwa have extremely efficiently managed all our complex research finance activities, including navigating the countless frustrations of unpredictable deadlines that appear at the eleventh hour.

I’m hearing wonderful feedback from Dr Woodland and Dr Lala from our ACP program. Although the first-year ACP class has never met in person, ACP students are bonding through their participation in ACP Teams in addition to their classes. Established before the pandemic, ACP Teams are an opportunity for students to develop their teamwork skills while getting to know each other better. Students are assigned to groups of four and meet (now virtually) for at least one hour per week. Each ACP team is tasked with developing its own meeting goals. The teams have engaged in a wide variety of activities from playing games together, participating in meditation and yoga activities, researching career paths, reviewing each other’s resumes, holding each other accountable for personal goal-setting, and practicing leadership skills by rotating team roles. ACP students are expressing thanks for the sense of community fostered by ACP Teams, especially during the pandemic.

Dr Arnot and Charlotte Pashley have provided phenomenal support to enable all our course coordinators to navigate the treacherous teaching journey from in-person to fully online to hybrid to semi-hybrid via synchronous, calling in on asynchronous, dropping in on hi flex…………and back to fully online again. Amid this turmoil, our course coordinators have successfully negotiated the semester. Some have commented on what I call ‘lemons to lemonade’ moments, “The students have been amazing - the thank you's and goodbye's at the end of class are such a nice way to close each session” and “Our virtual panel with some of our community partners was a highlight for the teaching team and the students. We are incredibly grateful for the willingness of our partners to share their time, expertise and lived experience”. 
We have several major challenges ahead, one of the most pressing being the challenge of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, and what steps we can take to implement change. We are establishing a new equity, diversity and inclusion working group composed of faculty, staff and trainees. This group will plan upcoming events, training sessions, and develop a larger strategy about EDI issues - issues that are central to our shared thriving. In recent faculty meetings, we have brainstormed about approaches for increasing equity, diversity and inclusion in our Department. Dr Laposa is working with the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s EDI Director, Anita Balakrishna, to design a series of Department-wide training sessions about Allyship in Research Teams. We are delighted to announce that we are in the process of establishing six new scholarships for Black and Indigenous Students in our Department and we look forward to accepting our first applicants in 2021.

As ever, a huge thank you to Elaine, who together with Jenn, Diana, Charlotte and Nesma, quite literally, holds the Department together. We could not do this without you. I may be a little biased, but I am convinced that we have the best staff team in the entire university.

We are all feeling the strain of the relentless nature of the pandemic. Many of us are dealing with various challenges related to our family circumstances, loneliness, pressure of our studies, juggling work and family / carer responsibilities or being apprehensive and uncertain about the future. We are all missing many of the people and things that bring us joy. During such challenging circumstances, I would like to thank you all so much for supporting one another. Please continue to do whatever you can to encourage each other in these unique and extraordinary circumstances - we are all facing stressors. 

Thank you to all those involved in putting together the Pharmer's Almanac – it is so encouraging to read about some of the Departmental successes and highlights. Special thanks to Jenn Robinson, Diana Kam, Charlotte Pashley, and Dr Swardfager for leading this initiative.

Finally, finishing on a celebratory note - Happy Birthday to Dr Kalant, who celebrated his 97th birthday last month.

Sending you all my best regards for a restful and peaceful holiday season.

Ruth Ross

Awards and Recognition

Congrats, David Bodenstein!
Harold Kalant Award Recipient

David Bodenstein and his dog Emma

David is a 4th year PhD student in the Andreazza lab studying mitochondrial biogenesis in bipolar disorder, as well as developing novel approaches for autologous mitochondrial transplantation in patients with mitochondrial disease. He is passionate about research in mental health as a result of his own personal experiences, and those of family members and friends. He believes this intersection between patient advocate and researcher allows him to have a unique perspective in his studies. David joined the Department as an undergraduate student in 2012 and never left.

David is honoured to receive the inaugural Harold Kalant Award for his paper published in npj Schizophrenia in December 2019. This award serves as a reminder to him of the importance of mental health research and the need to continue pushing forward with his work and research. David hopes to continue his career in academia and one day have a lab of his own.

Congrats, Daniel Hanna!

Daniel Hanna

Fiona Smillie Memorial Award Recipient

Daniel first joined the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology in 2010 to pursue his M.Sc. in Toxicology under the supervision of Dr. Denis Grant. Early into his program, Daniel recognized his growing passion for his project, which focused on factors contributing to the sex differences in liver cancer risk, later leading him to enroll in the Ph.D. program. Following the completion of his Ph.D., Daniel remained with the Department as a Research Associate assisting in the development of the new laboratory course while also continuing his research. During his time in the Department, Daniel was fortunate for several opportunities offered to him which allowed him to contribute in various capacities to the Department. Daniel was an active Teaching Assistant for several undergraduate Pharmacology courses over the years and a PGSA Committee Member. In the summer of 2019, Daniel made the transition from academia to industry and is now a Medical Science Liaison working in both the neuroscience and rare disease therapeutic areas. 

Congrats, Sung-Hee (Seanna) Yoon!
CIHR Post-Doctoral Fellowship

Seanna was recently awarded a prestigious CIHR Post-Doctoral Fellowship. She worked with Drs. Jane Mitchell and Marc Grynpas from 2012 to 2019, for her M.Sc. and PhD. During her time in the Department, she authored an impressive 6 publications. Using the mdx mouse model of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, she examined the effects of bisphosphonates, vitamin D deficiency, PTH, and growth hormone on growing bone and muscle in the presence of glucocorticoids. After graduation, she began her post-doctoral studies at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where she now studies the PTH signalling pathway in kidney. The Department wishes her well on these exciting next steps!

 Kudos to our Faculty!

Congratulations to Dr. Krista Lanctôt, recipient of the 2020 Irma M. Parhad Award for Excellence from the Consortium of Canadian Centres for Clinical Cognitive Research! This prestigious award recognizes Dr. Lanctôt’s broad and important research contributions to the treatment of behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.
We are proud to congratulate Dr. K. Sandy Pang on being named recipient of the 2020 International Society for the Study of Xenobiotics North American Scientific Achievement Award in Honor of Ron Estabrook!
Dr. Pang is known for her transformational contributions to the understanding of how drug pharmacokinetics have significantly advanced the field of physiologically based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) modelling.
Congratulations to Dr. Rachel Tyndale for being named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Tyndale is recognized for her outstanding contributions to understanding the role of drug metabolism in addiction and in particular, how genetic polymorphisms alter behaviours relevant to nicotine addiction.


Research Excellence on a Global Scale

TMedical Sciences Buildinghe Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s deep strength in research was reflected this month in a series of global rankings that places University of Toronto in high standing. Pharmacology & Toxicology research is a strong contributor to this success. According to the National Taiwan University (NTU) Ranking of Scientific Papers, the University of Toronto ranks 5th in the world for Pharmacology & Toxicology for 2020.

Undergraduate News

PharmaChronicle Issue 6 now live! Read it here.

Graduate Events

Isolation and How to be Mindful Working from Home 

December 16, 2020
2:00 - 3:00pm EST

Zoom Link: Here
Password: UofTPharma

Questions? Contact the PGSA, 

You Got This image

PGSA Virtual Holiday Event

December 18, 2020
2:00 - 4:00 pm EST

The PGSA will be hosting a fun virtual holiday event for graduate students, faculty, and staff. Don't forget to register by Thursday, December 17!

Season's Greetings

Research Round-up

How to teach an old neuron new tricks

Researchers from the lab of Dr. Amy Ramsey addressed a critical question in the treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders: When is the best time to treat these types of disorders? They found that Cre-mediated reversal of gene knockdown led to robust molecular, biochemical and behavioural improvements. Excitingly, genetic rescue in adult mice was as effective at improving cognition as interventions in juvenile and adolescent mice. This finding provides evidence that adult interventions for neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia can be effective, even for cognitive deficiencies that are historically treatment-resistant. The implications of this work are long-ranging: what was originally believed to be a rigid and static adult brain is actually quite plastic and responsive to change.

This study was led by Dr. Catharine Mielnik, who received her PhD from the Ramsey lab. It was published in Molecular Psychiatry.

What do insomnia and common psychiatric disorders have in common?

Sleep disturbances often precede mood episodes in sufferers of psychiatric disorders, which are also associated with increased risks of epilepsy, chronic pain, and other debilitating comorbidities related to neuronal hyperexcitability. The fragile X homolog FXR1 appears in genome wide association studies for insomnia and schizophrenia. While a functional FXR1 variant is associated with emotional stability, especially in combination with variants in GSK3β. Relatively little is known about this protein, or how it might contribute to multiple brain disorders. This new study shows that FXR1 is essential for regulating the strength of synapses after sleep deprivation. FXR1 acts as a signalling hub between the well known neurodegenerative GSK3β pathway and protein translation, which ultimately determines the expression of AMPA receptors on the neuronal surface - a critical determinant of neuronal excitability. The results offer exciting new potential to protect the brain from sleep loss, especially for those who are most vulnerable.

Heat Map
The heat map image (above) shows reversion of sleep deprivation changes by FXR1 overexpression. The study was led by Jivan Khlghatyan from the Beaulieu lab and it has been published in the EMBO Journal. Jivan has since convocated with his PhD and moved into a post-doctoral position at Novartis in Boston.

Putting the breaks on runaway dopamine

Researchers from Dr. Ruth Ross' lab have become the first to demonstrate that an allosteric modulator of CB1 offers potential to treat positive symptoms of psychiatric illness. They demonstrated amelioration of psychosis-like phenotypes in rodent models of hyperdopaminergia. Dopamine controls cognitive, emotional and motor aspects of goal-directed behaviour, and alterations in dopamine (primarily states of subcortical hyperdopaminergia) play a role in a number of psychiatric disorders. The endocannabinoid systems serves as an important filter of afferent inputs, helping shape how incoming information is conveyed onto dopamine neurons and to output targets. This work offers new hope for the common and severe psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia which affects 1% of the population, which still lack effective treatments for positive symptoms likely related to elevated subcortical dopamine signalling.
This study was led by Dr. Catharine Mielnik, a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Ross lab in PharmTox. It was published in Neuropsychopharmacology

Missing link between cannabis use and psychotic symptoms

Jeremy WattsCannabis targets the brain endocannabinoid neurotransmitter system, which has been previously implicated in schizophrenia. PharmTox PhD Candidate Jeremy Watts et al. report in Biological Psychiatry, for the first time, that lower brain fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) is related to higher severity of positive psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. FAAH breaks down anandamide, an endocannabinoid neurotransmitter that activates the same receptor targeted by cannabis. This first study of FAAH in schizophrenia, using a CAMH developed tool ([11C]CURB) indicates that FAAH may be a novel biomarker or treatment target for psychotic symptoms.

The work is also the subject of an enthusiastic commentary by veteran researchers of cannabis and psychosis Dr. Mohini Ranganathan and Dr. Cyril D’Souza.

On the potential clinical implications of the finding, the commentary authors speculated “if lower FAAH observed with higher symptoms reflects the body’s attempt to reduce symptoms, that would raise the possibility of testing FAAH inhibitors in the treatment of positive symptoms” and recommended that “future studies should investigate FAAH activity in [schizophrenia].” This study is also important as it may provide insight into the missing molecular link between cannabis use and psychotic symptoms in vulnerable individuals.

The work relied on collaboration between several lab groups in PharmTox including PharmTox alumus Maya Jacobson, MSc, PhD candidate Nittha Lalang, Dr. Isabelle Boileau, Dr. Rachel Tyndale and Dr. Ruth Ross. This study is the first part of a larger multi-modal imaging programme investigating the brain endocannabinoid system in psychotic disorders and psychosis risk led by Dr. Mizrahi.

Other recent publications from PharmTox

Mental Health Resources

Please know that there are a wide variety of supports available to all U of T students, staff, and faculty. Here are a few helpful links and phone numbers:


 Faculty and Staff:

Community Helplines:

  • Gerstein Center Mental Health Crisis Line: 416-929-5200 Provides free, voluntary, and confidential crisis intervention service over the phone and in-person for adults living in the City of Toronto. Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Toronto Distress Centre Hotline: 416-408-HELP (4357) or text 45645.  Offers 24/7 emotional support, crisis intervention, suicide prevention and linkage to emergency help when necessary. Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566  Available 24/7 for phone calls to help individuals thinking of suicide or worried about a potentially suicidal loved one. Also available from 4pm to 12am ET via text at 45645.

We'd love to hear from you!

Have an event, story, award, or publication you'd like to share? Let us know!

Wishing you a Happy & Healthy Virtual Holiday Season from all of us!
Zoom Holiday Faculty Photo
Alumni LinkedIn Group
Copyright © 2020 Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, All rights reserved.

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