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May 2021 Edition

Chair's Message

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

Here we are in yet another lockdown scenario - over one year into the pandemic. As I have said many times in other Chair’s messages, I am so grateful for the huge commitment of everyone in the Department to cope with, and adapt to, the ongoing situation. It is stressful for everyone, particularly those juggling other concerns such as health issues, childcare, finances, and extended family responsibilities. These stressors are experienced by staff, trainees, and faculty alike. We are all very aware of the low points over the past year, but in this edition of the Pharmers Almanac we get to see some of the many wonderful highlights as well.

A spectacular standout of the year was the announcement that our Business Officer, Elaine Jack, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the David Keeling Award for Administrative Excellence. This award is for an individual who has demonstrated a sustained contribution of excellence over a period of at least five years. While I am the Chair of the Department, everyone knows that it is really Elaine who runs the show! Everything would fall apart without her - together, of course, with the exceptional office team of Charlotte, Diana, Jenn, and Nesma. I echo the words of the Award Committee ‘Elaine has demonstrated exceptional contributions in leading and managing the administrative structure in the department and ensuring staff felt supported, encouraged and well-trained. Her efforts have helped to create an extremely well-run and collegial work environment’.

Another exceptional achievement of the year is the award of The Order of Canada to Professor Susan George – a huge accomplishment, recognizing a lifetime of contributions to science. Professor George is a wonderful colleague and an exemplary role model, demonstrating excellence and innovation in research, combined with a dedication and commitment to training the next generation of scientists. Dr. George is a very worthy recipient of the Order of Canada. We are so proud of all of her achievements.
Many congratulations to the three recipients of Excellence in Teaching awards! These awards honour the invaluable contributions of Drs Burnham, Ramsey and Swardfager to the educational mission of the Department. I would like to thank them for their dedication and commitment to our students. I know you all go above and beyond. We are very grateful. These awards are so well deserved, and we are very proud of you.

We are also delighted to announce our new Excellence through Equity Graduate scholarship award. Thanks so much to Dr. Laposa, Diana Kam and all the members of the EDI working group for their dedicated work on developing this new scholarship.

I would also like to give a special shout out to the PGSA, under the leadership of Co-presidents Alison Jee and Haidy Giratallah. The PGSA team have done a stellar job - with a range of events and workshops that have most certainly made a big impact on our community - especially during the pandemic. They have secured grants and developed new initiatives which we’ll hear more about in the coming months. It is clear that the PGSA team care a lot about their peers and the Department, and have dedicated so much time and effort to both. This is very much appreciated by us all. Great Job!

Finally, although very sad announcements have been made surrounding the passing of Drs Seeman, Endrenyi and Sunahara, it is also wonderful to reflect on their lives and immeasurable contributions to our research field. We are so grateful to have known them as colleagues and friends. I think I speak for the entire PharmTox community when I say that we are so proud that they were part of our Department, and we will remember them fondly. Thanks to them, we are now ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as is clear from the Research Round-up which highlights all kinds of impactful ongoing research developments from our faculty and trainees.

I really hope you all manage to have a vacation this summer. It has been a long relentless year, and some sunshine and relaxation is very much in order.


As ever, thanks so much to the Pharmer's Almanac team for putting together another wonderful issue!

Awards and Recognition

Dr. Susan George Bahl named Member of The Order of Canada

The Department is delighted to announce that Professor Susan George Bahl, has been named Member of The Order of Canada, one of the country’s most prestigious honours. Continue reading...

Congratulations to Drs. Burnham, Ramsey and Swardfager

Congratulations to Drs. Burnham, Ramsey and Swardfager for receiving Excellence in Teaching Awards. Continue reading...

Congratulations to Elaine Jack!

Elaine Jack, Business Officer of the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology has been selected as this year’s recipient of the David Keeling Award for Administrative Excellence from the Temerity Faculty of Medicine. Continue reading...

Congratulations to Angela Zhou and Nicole Machado!

Congratulations to Angela Zhou and Nicole Machado for receiving the Graduate and Life Sciences Education Undergraduate Student Leadership Awards. Continue reading...

Undergraduate News

 PTSA Election Results – Executive Team 2021-22 

Thank you to everyone who ran for PTSA 2021-2022!
The results are in, and we are happy to introduce your new execs! 
  • Co-presidents: Emily Mathers and Seungmin Lee
  • Co-vice presidents: Adrian Lee and Eric Kim
  • Director of Finance: Cheng An (Andrew) Wang
  • Director of Communications: Rachel Yang
  • Director of Social Events: Michelle Wang
  • Secretary: Alan Zhuang
  • Third year representative: Simon Qu
  • International representative: Anthony Wong
Congratulations everyone!
The PharmaChronicle Issue 7 is now live! Download your copy here

Undergraduate Research

This year, PCL472/474 project students took advantage of a new structural biology opportunity to work with Dr. Matthieu Schapira at the Structural Genomics Consortium. Students created informative videos describing their projects, including the visualizations of protein structures and drug binding sites. Their exciting work can be viewed on YouTube. PCL472/474 is coordinated by Dr. Rebecca Laposa.

Graduate News

New Excellence Through Equity Graduate Scholarships

We are delighted to announce the launch of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology’s Excellence Through Equity Scholarships for incoming graduate students.
These scholarships were established by the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology to increase the number of, and support for, Black and/or Indigenous students interested in pursuing graduate studies in the Department.
This award aims to recognize academic excellence and potential for contribution to research excellence and to break down some of the barriers to entering and engaging in graduate studies in an inclusive environment. 

These scholarships reflect the Temerty Faculty of Medicine’s strong commitment to diversity. Further information about the scholarship and the application form can be found here.
Recent alumna, Rozee Liu reflects on her transition from the classroom to the workplace, and the life lessons she learned along the way. Read her reflection here
Visions in Pharmacology 2021

Date & Time: Friday, May 29th 2021 9am-3:30pm (social event: 3:30-5pm)

Location: Zoom

The Event: We are honoured to have our keynote speaker, Dr. Ashkan Golshani, who will present his research on protein-protein interactions in the context of COVID-19 drug peptide development. We will also have student seminars and poster sessions. View the Pre-Event Booklet for more information. Register here (note that registered trainee attendees will be offered gift cards!).

PGSA Initiative for Student Mental Wellness

This year, headed by Aleksandra Marakhovskaia, the PGSA launched a new initiative to support students' mental health. In partnership with Campus Mental Health (CICMH), workshops were delivered to delve into topics such as stress, burnout recovery, and how to promote peer support among trainees. In addition to the CICMH-facilitated workshops, PGSA initiated PharmTalks, a student-facilitated monthly discussion session around the topics addressed and more. These two series complement each other in that the CICMH-facilitated workshops are meant to be more didactic and informative, while the PharmTalks sessions are discussion groups that facilitate conversations and sharing of strategies amongst peers.

“I really appreciate these workshops. Thank you for being such a supportive group and hosting these workshops and discussions!” - Student feedback

Aleksandra Marakhovskaia
April PGSA meeting (missing: Nidhi Kulkarni, Daniel Lee, Erin Sellars)

A message from Alison and Haidy, PGSA Co-Presidents: 

We wish everyone a happy end of term! While we are all too familiar with how challenging this year has been, we hope that you have accomplished the things you set out to achieve. 

For us, leading the PGSA during a pandemic has been at times uncertain, confusing, and a great deal of work. What has made this year successful and rewarding for us was working with the PGSA team to bring our many events together (and laughing at the mistakes we made along the way). Thank you to our amazing and supportive colleagues - we are incredibly impressed and inspired by your creativity and drive. Not only have we transformed our main events such as the holiday lunch and VIP, we have also created many exciting new initiatives (such as our mental health series and PharmaCulture series) and platforms (such as our clothing sale fundraiser store, fundraiser page, website, and more).

Thank you to those who took part in our events over the last year - we hope you enjoyed them and were able to connect to others in the Department through them. We hope you can join us for our last Departmental social event of the year on following VIP! This will be a way to connect with others in a fun virtual setting (that isn’t Zoom). 

As we look forward to a new year, we encourage grad students to consider joining the PGSA exec team - stay tuned for elections in early June! Congratulations to everyone for making it this far - you did it!

PGSA Websites and Social Media

Research Round-up

Oxylipin pathways may be disrupted in people with depression and diabetes

Natasha Anita

Depression is common in type 2 diabetes, and while inflammation has been linked to both conditions, the specific mechanisms are not well understood. Dietary fatty acids can be converted by cytochrome P450 enzymes (CYP450s) into epoxides that help resolve inflammation, however their beneficial effects are limited when metabolized by soluble epoxide hydrolase (sEH) into inactive or cytotoxic diols. This study found higher diol oxylipins in diabetes patients with depression, and greater deficits in epoxides associated with more severe depressive symptoms. The results suggest a new hypothesis for depression in diabetes involving deficits in fatty acid derived lipid mediators that resolve inflammation.

The study was published in Psychoneuroendocrinology by Natasha Anita, a PhD student from the Swardfager lab. Natasha was awarded Best Poster Award at the 18th International Winter Eicosanoid Conference 2020, a 3-minute thesis award at Visions in Pharmacology 2020, and First Prize in the Banting and Best Diabetes Centre Annual Trainee Awards competition 2021.

The promise and peril of chemical probe negative controls

Jinyoung Lee
Chemical probes are important tools for the discovery and characterization of novel protein targets for tomorrow's drugs and must be used in parallel with negative controls (inactive analogs). Computational analysis estimates that a small chemical modification (i.e., methylation) of a chemical probe at a site that precludes its activity on the intended target protein may also preclude its activity on 50% of off-target proteins. These results emphasize the need to select negative controls with care, and to profile both chemical probes and negative controls against diverse protein arrays. The study has clear implications for best practices: to use unrelated chemical probes targeting the same protein to observe whether they elicit the same phenotype or not.

This work was led by Jinyoung Lee, an undergraduate researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Matthieu Shapira in the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology. It was published in ACS Chem Biol.

Do our bones play a role in stress and depression in people with type 2 diabetes?

Michelle Nguyen
What is the relationship between our bones, stress, depression and type 2 diabetes? The study included 95 participants with type 2 diabetes, of which, 22% were experiencing a depressive episode. Serum levels of a protein that is released from the bone called osteocalcin were compared between study participants with and without depression. The study found that serum osteocalcin is linked to chronic perceived stress in type 2 diabetes, particularly during depressive episodes.
The paper was published in Psychoneuroendocrinology by Michelle Nguyen, a graduate student in the Swardfager lab.

Identifying the influence of gender on benzodiazepine prescriptions


Leanna Lui

Benzodiazepine (BZD) prescription rates have been increasing, globally. While several clinical guidelines do not recommend BZDs as first-line treatments, BZDs continue to be inappropriately prescribed resulting in the worsening of existing psychiatric disorders. This study sought to determine the influence of gender on patient-prescriber dyads of benzodiazepines using the Florida Medicaid Managed Medical Assistance (MMA) dataset. Results indicate that prescribers were more likely to recommend BZDs and male patients were more likely to be recipients of BZDs. These results proffer the hypothesis that BZD prescriptions with respect to gender may be influenced by stereotypes and stigma of mental illness.
The study was led by Leanna Lui in the laboratory of Dr. Roger McIntyre and published in CNS Spectrums

Angiotensin receptor blockers may slow Alzheimer’s disease progression

Plot of amyloid accumulation versus time
This work compares two classes of medications equivalent for their antihypertensive effects, angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE-Is), in their effects on Alzheimer’s disease progression. Using positron emission tomography, the use of an ARB was associated with a slower rate of global amyloid-β accumulation over time relative to use of an ACE-I in cognitively normal participants. Furthermore, ARBs were associated with slower rates of decline in memory, language, and processing speed in participants with Alzheimer’s disease. In both studies, the benefits of ARBs were most evident in non-carriers of the associated APOE ε4 allele. The studies offer new evidence to support neuroprotective benefits of ARBs and may inform the design of trials and personalized therapy.

These studies were led by Michael Ouk, who received his MSc this year in the Swardfager lab. The associated papers were published in Neurobiology of Aging and Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy.
Depression: a behavioural prodrome or a true risk factor for Alzheimer’s dementia?

 Kelly Kim
We observed that recently active (within the past 2 years) but not remote (more than 2 years ago) depression was independently associated with increased risk of subsequent Alzheimer’s dementia (AD). Their association remained significant in women only and not in men, but was not moderated by sex. Our findings suggest that depression may be part of behavioural prodome of AD rather than a true risk factor and variable distribution of other factors may account for the difference observed between men and women.

This research was led by Kelly Kim of Dr. Krista Lanctôt's Neuropsychopharmacology Research Group, published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
Oxidative stress and cognitive decline in heart disease
 Mehnaz Ahmed

Cognitive impairment is a significant and under-diagnosed symptom in coronary artery disease patients who are at risk for early signs of dementia; clinically diagnosed as having possible vascular cognitive impairment - no dementia (VCIND). Antioxidant systems are dysfunctional in both cardiovascular disease and dementia. This work found that the activity of the main enzyme in the antioxidant system, glutathione peroxidase, is altered in VCIND, suggesting that VCIND patients have a compensatory response to persistent oxidative stress. The study further implicated glutathione peroxidase activity as a potential biomarker for verbal memory performance. The research supports the MOVE-IT clinical trial currently being lead by Dr. Lanctôt, investigating effects of antioxidant supplementation plus exercise in improving cognitive outcomes for this groups of patients at risk for dementia.
This work was led by Mehnaz Ahmed of Dr. Krista Lanctôt's Neuropsychopharmacology Research Group, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

New insights from ancestry‐specific CYP2A6 genetic risk scores in understudied populations

 Ahmed El-Boraie
African-ancestry smokers exhibit lower smoking cessation rates and higher incidences of tobacco-related diseases compared to European populations despite smoking fewer cigarettes. In part, these differences may be explained by differences in the activity of CYP2A6, the main enzyme that inactivates nicotine. In European populations, genetic risk scores (GRS) generated from genome-wide association studies explain more variance in CYP2A6 activity than CYP2A6 * alleles alone. Here, in understudied African-ancestry and admixed African-European ancestry populations, population-specific GRS identified unique smoking cessation outcomes between normal and slow CYP2A6 metabolizers. The findings provide new tools for understanding disease susceptibility and pharmacotherapy responses for people of African-ancestry. 
This study was led by Ahmed El-Boraie, who is pursuing his PhD in Dr. Tyndale’s lab. It was published in the journal, Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics.

Other recent publications from PharmTox


PharmTox Prof Dr. Leonardo Salmena talks about leukaemia, understanding treatment resistant relapses, and the possible roles of microRNAs in designing future treatments. Listen to the podcast here.

In Memoriam

We are very saddened to announce that Professor Philip Seeman passed away on Saturday, January 9, 2021. Professor Philip Seeman OC, MD, PhD, DSc FRSC was a Canadian icon of neuroscience research and neuropharmacology who was renowned for his extensive research on dopamine receptors. Continue reading...

Canada has long benefited from immigration of talented people from other nations. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 led to Laszlo Endrenyi's relocation to Canada and thence to his exceptional contributions to the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology and to the entire University of Toronto community. Continue reading...
It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Professor Fred Sunahara on July 16, 2019. Continue reading...

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!
Alumni LinkedIn Group
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