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Actually, it is rocket science



November 18, 2022 — 

Dr. Philip Ferguson

Listening to Philip Ferguson list off the projects he is involved with, you’d think he wouldn’t have time to sit and talk with me about them.


Ferguson is an associate professor in mechanical engineering, the NSERC / Magellan Aerospace Industrial Research Chair in Satellite Engineering at UM, and the director of STARLab, a suite of projects based in the Price Faculty of Engineering and where he is telling me about his work.

As we talk, beside me on a table is a cube-shaped structure about half a metre on each side, looking like a half-made Meccano kit or something constructed from an ancient Tinkertoy set. Across the room from us is a long wooden trough filled with sand, and what appears to be a truck with wheels at one end. In the centre of the room is a large area encompassed by netting. Scattered around the room are tables with computers where grad students are busily poring over data and displays. It looks rather like the set of a Big Bang Theory episode.

Testing a drone's ability to detect objects on and under ice

Testing a drone’s ability to detect objects on and under ice

Ferguson explains: “My research aims to ‘make space accessible’ for communities.  I’m currently working on a CubeSat design that would empower northern Inuit communities with ice and snow remote sensing data to help them assess ice safety. Climate change makes that more and more perilous for them.”

Ferguson and his team of grad students and other faculty are partnering with the town of Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, and with outreach collaborators in Churchill.  This satellite will be launched into a polar orbit, much like the next shell of Starlink satellites that is expected to give Arctic communities access to high-speed internet.

In fact, while emailing me about his work, because he lives in a remote area of Manitoba, Ferguson used a Starlink high-speed Internet system rather than the wifi or wired systems most of us use. It’s indicative of how satellite and remote sensing technology is so pervasive in our everyday lives.

Drone for testing satellites

Drone for testing satellites

While focusing on space technology, Ferguson is also experimenting with drones to supplement or enhance other projects. For example, the cube next to me is a complex drone within which a small satellite can be attached. The drone can then hover, accelerate and spin to simulate zero gravity, all while hovering in the STARlab in the UM Engineering & Information Technology Complex (EITC), so that the satellite’s spaceworthiness can be tested without actually launching it into space.

Ferguson predicts that within ten years, a satellite could be designed, built, tested and launched into space for about $250K, much less than the billions spent in previous decades. In fact, the UM satellite that is getting ready for launch was built for about $60K—a mere drop in the aerospace bucket.

He explains: “I’m just finishing a project that qualified a bunch of automotive-grade parts for space. This speaks to the ‘accessibility’ of space. It is no longer the case that satellites need to be built from ‘space-grade’ parts. We are doing research with Magellan Aerospace to create lower cost electronics, thereby improving the accessibility to space.”

“We even 3D printed many parts,” he adds.

The Ferguson lab is also working on a project that will help mitigate the challenge of unwanted space debris. Recently, the problem of pieces of decommissioned or damaged spacecraft in varying orbits which could endanger astronauts has been in the news and is of concern to NASA and the new US Space Force. Ferguson and his team are building a small thruster pod-like vehicle that could bring space debris back to earth autonomously.

Part of the problem in detecting and grabbing space debris is the tracking of the individual pieces. Ferguson’s team is also working on new kinds of sensors that could aid in tracking and locating materials of interest. These remote sensing strategies can be used by satellites to determine the thickness of ice in the Arctic, monitor herds of caribou, measure soil moisture in farmland, and even guide drones towards targets.

The drone side of his work is really taking off. Literally.

The netted area inside the lab is where they test drones and keep them from escaping down the hallways of the university. (“It’s happened,” he notes.)

Ferguson says there are plans to build a large structure in UM Smartpark where a multitude of projects can be built and tested, such as using onboard AI to steer drones and gather data remotely. The new facility will be known as “the Drone Dome,” and could be used year-round to test and fly drones and other craft. $2.1M in funding for the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) facility was announced on November 18, 2022, by the Honourable Dan Vandal, Minister for PrairiesCan.

The UM "Mars Rover"

The UM “Mars Rover”

The trench in the EITC lab that is filled with sand is in fact a testing area for drones that could navigate terrain on Mars and other planets. A larger simulation of Mars could be built inside the Drone Dome as well.

And then there’s the pigs.

This needs some explanation. Every year, tragic deaths occur when Canadians fall through the ice on lakes and rivers. Unfortunately, their bodies don’t always sink to the bottom because they have so much air in them, so they instead float to the underside of the ice and are trapped. When attempted rescuers search for them, nothing is found on the bottom because the bodies are above them, hidden from view.

But if a drone was able to penetrate the ice with lidar or radar, the bodies could be located more easily. And that’s where the pigs come in.

Ferguson and his colleagues (including Drs. Gordon Giesbrecht and Ian Jeffrey) have used hog carcases placed under water and beneath ice as human analogues, then deployed sensors above the ice to locate the bodies. It’s grisly, but it may be used to locate human victims of tragedy someday.

STARlab is one of the most unique facilities at UM, and with the development of the Drone Dome and the launch of a UM satellite hopefully in early 2023, Manitoba’s race for space seems like it’s just beginning.

Dr. Philip Ferguson with some of his team's drones and spacecraft

Dr. Philip Ferguson with some of his team’s drones and spacecraft

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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GLP-1 Agonists Protected Kidneys in T2D With Advanced DKD



Researchers published the study covered in this summary on Research Square as a preprint that has not yet been peer reviewed.

Key Takeaways

  • In patients with advanced diabetic kidney disease (DKD; estimated glomerular filtration rate [eGFR] < 30 mL/min/1.73m2), treatment with a glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonist had a neutral effect on cardiovascular outcomes but significantly linked with preservation of kidney function and improved survival in a propensity-score matched, retrospective analysis of observational data from more than 2000 people with type 2 diabetes in Taiwan.

Why This Matters

  • Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of mortality in people with type 2 diabetes and among those with chronic kidney disease.
  • GLP-1 agonists reduce all-cause mortality and cardiovascular death in people with type 2 diabetes, but their role in patients with advanced DKD is controversial.
  • Research on the effect of GLP-1 agonists on cardiovascular outcomes in patients with advanced DKD is limited. Trials that have assessed GLP-1 agonists in people with type 2 diabetes have generally excluded those with advanced DKD and completely excluded those with end-stage kidney disease (eGFR < 30 mL/min/1.73m2).
  • Treatment with GLP-1 agonists has been associated with a significant reduction in composite cardiovascular outcomes in people with type 2 diabetes and relatively fair kidney function (eGFR > 30 mL/min/1.73m2), but among people with type 2 diabetes and lower levels of kidney function, research has shown neutral composite cardiovascular outcomes levels. However, limitations of previous studies include being mainly based on subgroup analysis or including a limited sample of patients.

Study Design

  • Retrospective analysis of observational data from nearly 9000 people in Taiwan with type 2 diabetes and an eGFR < 30 mL/min/1.73m2 who received a first prescription for a GLP-1 agonist or dipeptidyl peptidase 4 (DPP-4) inhibitor in 2012-2021 and had the data necessary for this analysis in their records.
  • The data came from the largest multi-institutional electronic medical record database in Taiwan, which includes two medical centers and five general hospitals and information on more than 11 million patients, from 2001 to 2019.
  • Researchers used propensity scoring to match 602 people treated with a GLP-1 agonist with 1479 people treated with a DPP-4 inhibitor.

Key Results

  • During a mean follow-up of 2.1 years, the rate of the composite cardiovascular outcome (cardiovascular death, myocardial infarction, and ischemic stroke) did not significantly differ between the GLP-1 agonist and DPP-4 inhibitor groups, with incidence rates of 13.0% and 13.8%, respectively, and a nonsignificant hazard ratio of 0.88. Rates of each of the three components of the composite endpoint also did not significantly differ between the two groups.
  • Progression to end-stage kidney disease with dialysis was significantly lower in those treated with a GLP-1 agonist compared with a DPP-4 inhibitor, with incidence rates of 23.4% and 27.5%, respectively, and a significant hazard ratio of 0.72.
  • The incidence of a greater than 50% drop in eGFR from baseline was 32.2% with GLP-1 agonist treatment compared to 35.9% with a DPP-4 inhibitor, with a significant hazard ratio of 0.74.
  • Median time until patients needed new-onset dialysis was 1.9 years with GLP-1 agonist treatment and 1.3 years with DPP-4 inhibitor treatment, which was a significant difference.
  • The rate of all-cause death was 18.4% with GLP-1 agonist treatment compared with 25.1% with DPP-4 inhibitor treatment, a hazard ratio of 0.71 that was significant.


  • Because the study was a retrospective analysis of observational data it cannot prove causality.
  • The study could be subject to residual confounding despite propensity-score matching.
  • The data came from health records that could have included coding errors.
  • Treatment compliance was unknown.


This is a summary of a preprint research study, “The cardiovascular and renal effects of glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor agonists in patients with advanced diabetic kidney disease,” by researchers in Taiwan on Research Square and provided to you by Medscape. This study has not yet been peer reviewed. The full text of the study can be found on


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Research by UBC professor lays groundwork for life-saving breast cancer treatment



A drug originally designed to prevent osteoporosis is now expected to save and improve the lives of millions of people with breast cancer, thanks in part to decades of foundational research by Dr. Josef Penninger, a professor in UBC’s Faculty of Medicine and director of the Life Sciences Institute.

The achievement highlights how UBC scientists are developing effective new treatments — and unlocking the full potential of existing drugs – through research into the fundamental biological principles behind disease. By advancing scientific discoveries from the lab to the clinic, UBC researchers are bringing life-changing treatments to patients everywhere.

The drug, called Denosumab, was recently shown in a long-term Phase 3 clinical trial to improve survival among postmenopausal women with hormone receptor-positive early breast cancer receiving aromatase inhibitor treatment. Moreover, the drug markedly improved patients’ quality of life by reducing broken bones by 50 per cent, a common side effect of breast cancer treatment. The results of the trial were recently reported in The New England Journal of Medicine.


Denosumab is a monoclonal antibody developed by American biopharmaceutical company Amgen to prevent bone loss. In the early 2000s, research by Dr. Penninger and his team revealed the therapeutic potential of Denosumab, as well as the drug’s surprising connections with breast cancer.

“More than two decades ago we started the experimental groundwork that revealed Donosumab’s potential as a treatment for breast cancer patients,” says Dr. Penninger. “These results are incredibly exciting and will help improve the lives of millions of patients. I am very proud of all the people in my lab over the years who did that work and helped pave the way for this achievement.”

Discovering the link between osteoporosis and breast cancer

Denosumab works by binding to and inhibiting the activity of a protein called RANKL, which plays a key role in bone-resorbing cells called osteoclasts. By blocking RANKL, denosumab reduces the activity of osteoclasts and slows down bone resorption, helping to increase bone density and preventing osteoporosis.

Dr. Josef Penninger

Dr. Josef Penninger

Dr. Penninger and his team began to draw the connection between osteoporosis and HR-positive breast cancer when they generated the first RANKL “knock-out” mice in the late 1990s.

A knockout mouse is a laboratory mouse that has been genetically engineered to have certain genes deactivated, or “knocked-out”. Dr. Penninger’s team engineered mice that lacked the genes necessary to produce the RANKL protein in an effort to study the protein’s essential function in bone metabolism.

However, to the researchers’ surprise, they discovered that the RANKL-deficient mice failed to develop a lactating mammary gland in pregnancy – a process that depends on sex hormones.

“This proved an evolutionary link: showing how bone loss is regulated by sex hormones, and how pregnant mammals activate RANKL to form breast tissue for lactation among other functions,” says Dr. Penninger.

Based on this initial finding, Dr. Penninger’s team went on to show that RANKL played a key role in progestin-driven breast cancer, as well as breast cancer driven by BRCA1 mutations.

“Further researcher revealed how RANKL controls the stem cells in the breast that respond to sex hormones and thereby drives growth of the breast tissue at every menstruation cycle and in particular in pregnancy and lactation,” adds Dr. Penninger.

In the case of breast cancer, RANKL spurs mammary epithelial cells to divide, and helps to maintain the stem cells that give rise to breast tumours.

A dual benefit drug

One in eight Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime according to the Canadian Breast Cancer Network. An estimated 70 to 80 per cent of these breast cancers are hormone receptor-positive (HR-positive), making it the most prevalent breast cancer subtype.

The current standard treatment for HR-positive breast cancer involves surgery and radiation, followed by treatment with aromatase inhibitors for 5 to 7 years. While aromatase inhibitors diminish sex hormones that drive new cancer growth, they can have serious adverse effects on bone health, including increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

The now-published clinical trial, led by the Austrian Breast and Colorectal Cancer Study Group, was conducted to see if Denosumab could help in two ways: by reducing these negative effects on bone health, while also improving breast cancer survival outcomes.

“These results are incredibly exciting and will help improve the lives of millions of patients.”
Dr. Josef Penninger

The results reveal that 6 mg of Denosumab every six months — the recommended treatment level for osteoporosis — improved disease-free survival, bone metastasis-free survival, and overall survival among participants. It also effectively reduced bone fractures over the long term.

“Blocking RANKL in breast cancer patients reduces broken bones by 50 per cent, massively improving their quality of life, and even at a very low treatment dose,” says Dr. Penninger. “We now know that RANKL drives breast cancer cell growth, is the critical mechanism behind bone loss, and has also an effect on anti-cancer immunity and immunological rewiring in pregnancy. These clinical results in patients show how blocking RANKL could save the lives of 50,000 women among one million women with the diagnosis of breast cancer.”

Based on the data, the researchers behind the trials are recommending that Denosumab be considered for routine clinical use in postmenopausal breast cancer patients receiving aromatase inhibitor therapy.

These trials were largely based on the foundational research published by the Penninger laboratory, including Kong et al. Nature 1999, Fata et al. Cell 2000, Jones Nature 2006, Schramek et al. Nature 2010, Sigl et al. Cell Research 2016, and Paolino et al. Nature 2021.

Dr. Penninger is now part of a large international prevention trial evaluating Denosumab in young women who carry BRCA1 mutations.


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Respiratory illness peaked in December at Chatham Kent Health Alliance: Suni – Chatham-Kent This Week



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Chatham-Kent Health Alliance officials are reporting a drop in patients visiting the emergency departments with respiratory illnesses between December and January, but admissions from the emergency rooms to the hospitals remain high.

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Caen Suni, the hospital group’s vice president of clinical programs and operations, said patients with illnesses like influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus dropped 50 per cent in January compared to December among children and by one-third among adults.


“The community is I think essentially working its way through seasonal illness at this point,” he said during a media teleconference Monday.

December also showed a 25 per cent increase over December 2021 for pediatric admissions and of those, 77 per cent were for respiratory illnesses, Suni said.

“That’s impactful and I think that’s what we’ve seen across the health sector in our entire region at this point,” he said.

Suni said the number of people seeking treatment at the emergency departments – which includes patients not admitted – is not “historically high,” but admissions to the hospitals increased in December by three per cent over the previous month.

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This translates to an extra two to three extra patients a day who require a bed. The health alliance also experienced almost 2.5 per cent more admissions in December than any month in the previous year.

However, December also had the lowest daily average of visits to the emergency departments of any month during the Health Alliance’s current fiscal year.

This means a higher proportion of patients require admission to the hospital and patients presenting at the emergency departments are more ill, Suni said.

Since December, the trends are now “pointing towards a decrease,” Suni said, “which we’re thankful for, as the community bounces back from seasonal illness.”

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