Cold truths from the world of virology

At the Research Matters Curiosity Shop people ask questions they’d like Ontario university researchers to answer. Recently, a visitor to the Shop asked: “Can we ever cure the common cold?” Research Matters tracked down Ana Sanchez, an infectious disease expert and instructor of medical microbiology at Brock University to get some answers.

Spoiler alert: It does not sound as though the facial tissue and cough medicine industries are in any danger.

Research Matters:    Why is it so hard to find a cure for the common cold?  
Ana Sanchez:    The first reason is because the disease is not caused by a single pathogen. There are more than 100 types of rhinoviruses that cause the symptoms we have come to know as the common cold. Then we have adenoviruses, coronaviruses and other groups that cause colds as well. Within each group, many variations can occur, providing different qualities to viruses, to which we must adapt and so our immune system can react appropriately . It would be a challenge to find a drug or vaccine that targets of them.

So, the diversity of the pathogens is, is the first challenge.

RM:     What else?
AS: Another challenge is that these viruses change a lot. They mutate. So even if we were to create a treatment it would be like a moving target.  It would be like the influenza, where we have to make new vaccines the time. Unless scientist find a special part of the virus molecule; a molecule that is common to an entire group and does not change much, the challenge will remain.

RM: Are viruses more challenging to treat than bacterial infections?
AS: For the longest time we were not able to create drugs to treat viral infections because scientists couldn’t identify a particular physiological aspect of a virus they could target. Bacteria are cells – living organisms with active metabolisms. They have membranes, cytoplasms, and nuclei we could decipher. We understand them better, which makes them easier to fight.

With viruses, we now know we’re not targeting live cells. Viruses are actually not “alive” although they carry a code for life. They don’t replicate by themselves, they don’t have metabolism.  They are the ultimate parasites and need to colonize a cell to do that, right?  So even when we may have drugs to inactivate viruses, because they live inside our cells, many time we end up damaging our own cells as well. As biotechnology advances, however, scientist are more able to conceive drugs or treatments to fight viruses off without causing too much damage to the patient.

Now, not viral infections are difficult to deal with. Some viruses, like hepatitis B are very stable, so it was possible to create a vaccine you can trust. It depends on the virus.

RM: Can scientists learn anything from the human immune system about curing colds?
AS: They could, but that’s really beside the fact. We get an infection, and our body successfully deals with it within a few days. We mount a strong cellular and antibody response and end up winning the battle.

But then we get another virus and another. There’s no end to the diversity of cold viruses.

RM: So, what’s the long-term prognosis for a cure?
AS: Curing the common cold is a terrible challenge. And remember that it is not really a severe disease. For most people, it is a nuisance. There’s a lot of people with the illness, but it’s not like influenza or other respiratory diseases that tend to be more serious. And even if there was a vaccine that worked for some cold viruses, it’s going to be hard to convince people that the vaccine works because they will get another cold from another virus and think, ‘Well this vaccine didn’t work well.’

RM: Is this just a never-ending battle, then?
AS: Each time there is a medical advance in virology – like the way we’re starting to better control HIV – we think we’re winning the battle against infectious agents. We have better drugs and people are living longer.  Then, boom, there’s something else.

Take Ebola. In the mid-1970s, Ebola became an issue for a period of time, and then we heard nothing for years. We thought maybe it was just a fluke. And then just comes back.

Of course, living a healthy life with good nutrition and good rest will improve your immune system to fight pathogens. And fighting pathogens (most of the time successfully) is something that we humans have been doing forever…

We are born with an immune system exactly because we need to fight these pathogens.  It’s there for a reason. But the other side is also always going to be there.

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Cosmopolitan consumers

Noreen Fagan | March 5, 2015

Canadians eat more sushi than Japanese people, according to Mark Cleveland. Cleveland is a professor of marketing at Western University. His research focuses on the integration of cultures on a global scale and the effects of cosmopolitanism, which according to Cleveland is, “the cultural openness and the ability to successfully navigate between different cultural groups.” In other words, people who want to understand and experience other cultures do so by fully immersing themselves in that culture. “You want to live the life of cultural authenticity, by trying to understand the culture through that culture’s eyes,” he says. Cleveland’s interest in cultural openness started when he was a Master’s and then a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal. He started researching how new immigrants, primarily ethic minorities, adapted to Canadian culture by finding ways to combine their traditional identities, culture and values into mainstream society. “I have always believed that just because you learn another culture does not mean you give up the original culture. You can be bicultural or multicultural and the two can reinforce each other,” says Cleveland. “Not only are minorities affected by cultural exchange but the majority are as well.” Canada’s multiculturalism prompted Cleveland to extend his research into globalization, with a focus on how global cultures affect majority populations around the world. In the last decade Cleveland has conducted research in 15 to 20 countries exploring cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism. He says a person no longer has to travel abroad – although it helps – to become cosmopolitan. A person can experience different cultures in the comfort of their own home or neighbourhood, simply by watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing videos on You Tube or buying and consuming different products. “When we buy products, and types of brands and the reasons for buying them, they are like extensions of ourselves,” he says. So how do the sushi–eating Canadians fit into all of this? Cleveland believes if a person wants to experience cultural authenticity they will gear their shopping towards achieving that aim. In other words, a person is not going to go for the North American version of sushi (think Californian Roll), when they can get the real thing – think Unagi. He says there is probably a general global trend towards cultural openness as people become more educated and have more exposure to other cultures but he warns, there is another side. “A lot of people are really opposed to what is happening with Globalization and they see their culture as under threat,” says Cleveland adding that the threat is heightened when people feel insecure. If people are feeling secure in their surroundings (financially, emotionally and physically), the more open they are to cultural exchange and the more cosmopolitan they become. Being cosmopolitan however, does not mean buying local is a thing of the past; in fact what makes cosmopolitans stand out is that they strive for cultural authenticity. “The more cosmopolitan you are means you are not only interested in preserving differences but also interested in the environment, like getting the best locally,” says Cleveland. In terms of cosmopolitanism Cleveland thinks Canadians are more accepting of other cultures. “We are a new country, most of us go back two or three generations and have one or two grandparents born somewhere else. We have a more fluid identity,” he says, adding that as large cities go, Toronto is well integrated. “We are not just living in these areas dominated by our own ethic group, there are more opportunities to mix, and I think that allows us to become more open-minded.”        

It’s not the ...

Araina Bond | March 3, 2015

Social media has changed advertising and marketing so drastically that companies can barely keep up, and consumers have had to completely rethink the influence advertising has in their lives, when many ads are embedded, targeted and constantly popping up in their browsers. Robert Kozinets has been thinking about the meaning of our relationship with the online community since the mid-nineties. Netscape was the hot new browser. If people thought about the Internet at all, it was mainly for online shopping. Flash forward almost two decades, where a world without Facebook and Twitter would be unimaginable. Now his efforts to understand the relationship between ethnography and brands, consumer culture and technology have become even more relevant to daily life. Kozinets, a Professor of Marketing at York University, explains that social media allow the consumer to connect with brands more directly. The overt agenda of traditional advertisements can create consumer skepticism, but independent bloggers seen to offer more objective reviews of products and services. “I try to help the business community recognize there are human qualities online,” he says. “Somewhere along the line the humanity got lost.” Back when he was completing his PhD at Queen’s University, Kozinets pioneered the concept of Netnography, an approach that seeks to understand the relationship between culture and online communities. “These days, you don’t engage with brands directly,” he explains. “You and the Old Spice Guy,’ for example, have a relationship because you use it with your boyfriend to spice it up, to joke and tease. The brand is being used to strengthen your relationship.” Some companies employ people to interact with the public, specifically to protect their image, increase brand awareness and generate sales. Taco Bell, for instance, has won media attention and awards for engaging directly with its followers, crafting a persona that is funny, hip and media savvy. Their team in charge of @TacoBell uses a winning combination of hashtags, retweets, pithy comebacks, and funny life hacks to win over followers and customers. Though Kozinets believes this trend supports consumer engagement, he also sees that many businesses can be unaware of the strength of this approach and therefore underutilize it. Consumers, on the other hand, have been also been employing social media as a way to assert their voices. An ill-treated musician who flew on the airline created the Youtube video “United Breaks Guitars,” which went viral. In the end, its popularity led United Airlines to make reparations for ruining the musician’s guitar after months of his dealings with customer service led to nothing but frustration. Kozinets believes that this situation is far from simple: “Anthropologists have a long history of looking at changes such as colonization for the benefits as well as the drawbacks they bring. Technology and marketing culture are like that too. In some ways they empower some people, for some purposes. In other ways, they create new challenges, difficulties, and inequalities. It is our job to trace them out and try to follow them, rather than believing the hype or the pessimists.” However, all this time spent online, Kozinets warns, has inured us to the fact that governments and companies have access to our very personal information. “Who is watching the watchers?” he asks. Academic voices have been mostly muted on this topic. He sees some progress being made within business schools, pointing out that it’s a mistake to see them as the lapdogs of corporations. Highly critical research, he explains, can lead to improved legislation that protects privacy, and this would make the online experience – now a part of everyday life – a safer and more secure experience for everyone. “More complicated?” He asks. “Yes. More interesting? Definitely.”      

Carpooling: there’s an ...

UOIT Staff | March 1, 2015

Fuel and insurance costs, parking fees, vehicle upkeep, traffic congestion, weather conditions and sheer time spent on the road. No matter how you slice it, commuting by car in the GTA tests every driver’s patience. And it certainly takes a toll on the pocketbook. One way motorists can get around the financial roadblock of commuting is to share costs by setting up a carpool. But even getting a carpool off the ground can be a trying task: how do you find people who are going where you are? How do you know where to meet someone? What if schedules change? “We examined all of these questions and looked for a way to create an app-based tech solution to tackle the challenges that prevent carpooling,” said Hamid Akbari, Assistant Professor,Faculty of Business and Information Technology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “Our answer is Blancride: an innovative carpooling platform that matches passengers with drivers who share the same travel needs.” Blancride works through smartphones as a customized message-board. It automatically balances the costs of each trip between each passenger and driver, simplifying the financial transaction and lowering the cost of each individual’s trip. Blancride takes a small fee for performing the service. “Passengers who use Blancride are sharing costs with the driver. Our cost-sharing platform is designed to be an affordable, commuter-friendly option, or to complement public transit. Costs for passengers are often comparable to public transit and significantly cheaper than a taxi.” Blancride is completely different from taxi services, which take direction from the passenger on final destination and receive payment for that service. With Blancride, drivers don’t make a profit: they only share their costs for the route they already intend to drive. Prices are calculated with a cost-per-kilometer amount, which lets passengers and drivers know the full cost of the trip before taking the ride. Blancride runs on iPhones and Androids and is accessible 24/7. As a new ride is offered or requested, the system calculates the appropriate matches and notifies the matched users. “If you use the app to tell us where you are going, then we'll show you who you can share that ride with. We encourage all drivers to post their planned rides because this helps people get around, day or night.” After working on the concept and design, Dr. Akbari reached out to his global network to build a team that shared his passion. The team is comprised of more than 30 individuals from North America, South America and Europe, and 13 UOIT students and alumni. He also partnered with Spark Innovation Centre to help Blancride open its doors and start growing as a company. More recently, Blancride was accepted to the Faculty of Business and Information Technology incubator, a for-credit program that promotes student entrepreneurship at UOIT and helps the university’s tech-startups grow and become globally successful. With the support of his faculty’s incubator, as well as his Dean, Dr. Pamela Ritchie, and Associate Dean Steve Rose, Dr. Akbari’s Blancride app was launched in November 2014. The app is available currently only to students, staff and faculty at UOIT and Durham College, but Dr. Akbari is encouraged that in Blancride’s first two weeks, 470 people signed up with about one-third being drivers. “New carpooling lanes are being built all the time, so we know governments at all levels are committed to support carpooling,” said Dr. Akbari. “Blancride makes carpooling easy. We know there’s always going to be a market for affordable transportation. We’ve uncovered a great new way to match supply with demand.”

Love and Passwords

Patchen Barss | February 12, 2015

UOIT researcher Christopher Collins has been part of a team studying more than 32 million passwords that were released from a now-defunct hacked website called “RockYou.” This work was led by graduate student Rafael Veras and was a collaboration with Julie Thorpe, from UOIT's Faculty of Business and Information Technology. Even though passwords are one of our best-kept secrets, it turns out millions of people put a little love in their computer security. You can explore some examples of real passwords in an interactive visualization, but here are the highlights of what he found:   Research Matters; How much love did you find in people’s passwords? Christopher Collins: In our study of 32 million passwords, we found that love was the most common verb. Love is about 23 times more common than hate. In fact, we compared the occurrence rates of words in passwords against the occurrence in “normal English” and found that “love” occurs much more often in passwords than in normal English.   RM: How do people build love into their passwords? CC: Love was seen in many patterns beyond the straightforward use of the word. For example, “<3” is the second most common sequence of the form <number + special character> (“#1” is the most common).  “<3” is a shorthand for a heart (turn your head). We also see a high occurrence of “4u” as in “ilive4ubaby” compared to other two character sequences.  We found thousands of passwords containing “lover”, “loverboy”, “lovergirl”, even “latinlover.” We found that people love dogs slightly more than cats. We found interesting patterns in the objects of love.  For example, for the pattern “ilove<name>”, the name is 4 times more likely to be a man’s name than a woman’s name.  In order of probability, people expressed love for “boys”, sex (in various word forms), dad, dogs, cats, music, mum/mom, love, horses, cities, and countries, rock, girls, alcohol (various word forms), chocolate, and angels. However, as objects of “hate”, male names are only twice as likely as female names. The pattern “ihate<name>” overall is about 75 times less common than “ilove<name>,” revealing that love wins over hate – at least in our passwords.  The object of “hate” is much more likely to be what our system calls a “knowledge domain”, like “ihatemath”! The pattern “Iloveyou” is 10 times more likely than “Iloveme” – so much for rumours of our self-centred society! We also see examples of unrequited love in patterns like “iloved<name>” and “imiss<name>”.   RM: What else? CC: We see these “romantic” patterns popping up in the adjectives used in passwords as well.  Here are the top 10 adjectives: 1) sexy 2) hot 3) pink 4) blue 5) red 6) big 7) cute 8) sweet 9) cool 10) green We see pet names, like “baby” occurring often, as in “babygirl”, “babygurl”, “Babyboy”, “babycakes”, “sexybaby”.  We don’t know, but I think these are not talking about infants.   RM: Predictability would seem to be a boon to hackers. Is there a security risk in choosing a love-based password? CC: We are continuing to work to quantify the security risks raised by our work.  This is the primary focus of our analysis, however, the human-interest part of this data is exciting too.  I would advise people against using “ilove<name>” as a password, as the pattern is just too common.  Approaches to guessing passwords (called “offline guessing attacks”) make millions of guesses and would quickly try these patterns. However, breaking up the pattern with other words, with numbers and other characters can help a lot.  We are working on systems to suggest modifications to passwords to make them more “semantically secure” in our current research.   RM: Does your research teach you anything about people's inner thoughts? CC: We can’t really say much about people as computer scientists.  We didn’t  know anything about the people – not even their username.  So, while we see very evocative passwords, such as “lovehurts”, we can’t ask anyone about them. Passwords are a very personal thing – we don’t expect anyone to know them, and we select them knowing they will be repeated many times throughout our days. So, when someone chooses to name their partner, such as “ilovedan” in a password, I expect that person is making a conscious effort to reaffirm that love as a sort of mantra through the day. Or, maybe they have a crush and are trying to manifest the unrequited love. We can’t say from the data! We were also surprised at the amount of affirmation in passwords.  While we did find hateful passwords, expressing hate against particular groups, religions, or people, overall, the sentiments seem quite positive. I think that passwords are a chance to have a personal secret, to be free with what we write, and perhaps play around a bit with language. When we choose intimate passwords, I think that expresses a desire and maybe reminds us of the positive things in life throughout our day.  But, I’m a computer scientist, this is just conjecture!        

Cat and rabbit: a ...

Sandra Annett | February 1, 2015

  In 2003, a trio of South Korean artists known as “SamBakZa” or “The Three Beats” posted a short Flash animation to their website, recounting a story of forbidden love between a cat and a rabbit. The story was so upbeat, the pace so frenetic that the cartoon borders on manic. Still, There She Is!! (which comprise the original cartoon plus four follow-ups) touched nerves all around the world: The cartoon has been watched more than 12 million times since its release. There She Is!! is based on a manhwa (comic) called One Day which was drawn by SamBakZa member Sogong. What is it about this odd little cartoon series that struck such resonance? In this excerpt from her book Anime Fan Communities: Transcultural Flows and Frictions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) Sandra Annett explores the cartoon's viewer community through the hundreds of posts and comments they've left behind. She theorizes that the medium itself might be the mechanism that allowed this story to reach so many people.   “Love at First Site”: these words are the subject line of a post made to the bulletin board on February 2, 2006. The poster, “Rae,” has just seen the music-video-style Flash cartoon “There She Is!!” (2003), which will come to form the first episode of a five-part series also called There She Is!! S/he has also just discovered that the site has a public bulletin board moderated by the SamBakZa team’s lead animator, Amalloc. At this point, there are 767 Original Posts (OPs) on the board, some with dozens of comments. Rae decides to post as well. Writing in English, Rae is slightly in the minority: over half of the posters coming to the board in 2006 write in Korean (398 OPs), though English trails not too far behind (276), and Japanese is relatively well-represented (89 posts, compared to just 3 in Spanish). “Love at First Site,” Rae puns (or simply misspells?) in the subject line. The post continues: I just happen to come across your site in the wee hours of the night . . . stumbled across a video that was made, and let me just say I fell in love! Though I don’t understand the lyrics, the music is wonderful, the art is beautifully done, and it made me very happy just watching it. Thank you for such a wonderful site, and keep up the good work! (Ellipses in orig.) Rae never became a regular commenter, but the sentiment expressed here and the particular way of expressing it is common for the bulletin board. This unremarkable, everyday sort of fan posting has two features which are among the key aspects of transcultural animation fan communities online: first, a mixture of emotional engagement and reflexivity, and second, a focus on issues of language. In the first case, notice how along with praising the art and animators, Rae also remarks on the online environment itself. The post begins with an account of finding the website—“stumbling across it” at random—and concludes with thanks, not just for the animation but for the “wonderful site.” The text and the conditions of its viewing meld into one affective experience: “it made me very happy just watching it.” This experience is spontaneous and immediate in its visuality, happening at first sight, and yet it is also self-consciously mediated and linguistic, as it happens on a site, with Rae bringing attention to the act of viewing a video and then expressing opinions on the board. At the same time, the experience is not limited by language, as Rae adores the short even without understanding the lyrics of the Korean pop song that structures it. Commenters posting in other languages express similar ideas. In November 2004, a regular Japanese poster called “Chiumi” suggested that Flash, by going beyond words, can allow all the people of the world to be deeply moved, so that by coming to this page they can feel as if a “new language” (“atarashii gengo”) is coming into being. So I very, very much respect Mr. Amalloc for being able to use that “new language.” Like Rae, Chiumi remarks on both the Flash animation and the act of “coming to this page,” which allow an affective coming-together “beyond words.” Chiumi’s portrayal of Flash animation as “going beyond words” is grounded in a reading of SamBakZa’s animation, since all five shorts have no dialogue and tell their stories through a combination of visuals and musical rhythms. It is also a perfect example of the kind of longing for a visual language capable of connecting “all the people of the world” that has accompanied the emergence of new media from film to the Internet. -from Anime Fan Communities: Transcultural Flows and Frictions (Palgrave Macmillan: 2014), pages 149-150. © Sandra Annett, 2014. Republished with permission.
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