Month: July 2015

A New Era for Breast Cancer Treatment

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Breast cancer is diagnosed to fit one of three groups, each of which requires a different treatment method. Shawn Baldacchino, a PhD student whose research and studies are being funded through donations by NGO’s and the community, is currently working on determining the best way to cure the most untreatable of them all.

Shawn Baldacchino RIDT 2015 816With over 300 new cases every year, breast cancer is a very pressing issue both for the authorities, as well as for ordinary people on the street. Worldwide, treatments have advanced manifold, and the high-level of healthcare enjoyed by those in Malta means that, today, one out of every four patients survives.

But the fight against breast cancer is not over, and scientists and researchers across the globe are constantly trying to find new and better ways to prevent and cure this disease. In order to do this, they also need to understand what brings it about, and PhD student Shawn Baldacchino, along with the Breast Cancer Research team at the University of Malta, are at the forefront of this research.

“Tumours arise from cellular errors,” says Shawn, who is under the supervision of Dr Godfrey Grech (from the Department of Pathology) and Professor Christian Scerri (from the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry). “That is why, as part of my PhD, we are currently looking at a particular pathway involved in the formation of cancer, to find out how we can reactivate control in the cancerous cells and get them to realise that they have to either die due to a large number of errors or go into normal differentiation (the process with which a cell becomes specialised in a function).”

As Shawn explains, breast cancer can be broadly divided into three main groups: ER+ (estrogen receptor positive), HER2+ (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 positive), and Triple Negative. “The difference is in what can be used to treat them,” he says.14419_984692981555719_7968197402917696291_n

“ER positive breast cancer is treated by using a hormonal therapies, while HER2 positive is targeted with trastuzumab,” he continues. “The Triple Negative tumour will not respond to any of these treatments hence proves more difficult to treat.”

The breakthrough in using this approach came by Shawn’s supervisor, Dr Godfrey Grech, who identified PP2A (the protein phosphatase 2a enzyme) as a crucial protein in cell function, at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

“What they discovered was revolutionary,” says Shawn. “While studying a model of red cell production, Dr Grech and others found a particular protein called PP2A. After further research, they discovered that it is involved in a lot of cell functions, particularly in its survival, in stopping the excess proliferation of cells, and in helping cell differentiation.”

Shawn has been working on his PhD for the past four years, and he is soon flying to Leeds to develop the collaboration, continue working on understanding PP2A, and to further the research to develop methods for identifying tumours that might be treatable by re-activating PP2A.

“We collaborate very actively with Leeds University Hospital, and so far they’ve sent us around 550 samples of breast cancer tissues for testing,” he explains “I’m now taking them along with other samples from Malta, to have them scanned. I will also be working on an experiment on a particular cell line of interest (a population of cells taken from a single cell, thus containing the same genetic makeup).”

1461181_689090607782626_249523064_nShawn is now in his final year of studies, a process that will have taken him five years to complete – two years part-time and three years full-time. The decision to move from part to full-time would have been impossible without monetary funding that was awarded to him by the ALIVE Charity Foundation and Action for Breast Cancer Foundation through RIDT.

“I believe that it is important to help researchers and scientists further education and research on our shores,” he says. “After all, our genetic make up is quite unique and that is invaluable in itself. In fact, I’m very grateful and proud for this opportunity to continue my research here in Malta.”

During his research, Shawn also works with Mater Dei Hospital, where he is allowed to use laboratory equipment. More than that, however, the hospital staff is always eager to assist him in furthering his research.

“The hospital can also supply us with samples of living tumours without compromising patient safety or diagnosis,” he adds. “These are the closest we can get to testing these new treatment and procedures directly on tumours without affecting patients, which can provide the robust evidence on the viability of using this treatment when we are still in the lab testing phase.”

A cure based on the discoveries of PP2A, while it exists, has so far never been tested on actual cancer patients. It has, however, been tested on human colon cancer models, and the results were exactly what researchers – including Shawn – were expecting.

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The Breast Cancer Research Team

“Scientists abroad tend to look at big data, but in Malta we have developed an approach with which we focus our efforts on a particular cellular process, studying it and also applying big data available from foreign research centres to look for the implications of things. This has proven to work time and time again, and that’s why we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves in Malta,” he concludes.

Shawn’s success would not have been possible had it not been for the generous support by the community. These donations are helping Maltese researchers and scientists discover a whole new world of possibilities that may make life better for many people around the globe.

The Breast Cancer Research Team at the University of Malta is headed by Dr Godfrey Grech and Prof Christian Scerri and driven by Dr Christian Saliba along with PhD students Shawn Baldacchino, Dr Elaine Borg, Maria Pia Grixti, Dr Ritienne Debono, Vanessa Petroni and Masters students Dr Keith Sacco and Robert Gauci.

You can be part of this fascinating world of research too by helping many other researchers achieve their breakthroughs in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).

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The Mobile Dental Unit – On the Road to Better Oral Health

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Nicolai Attard
Prof Nikolai Attard

The RIDT-funded Mobile Dental Unit is now on the road. But what does it do? And why is it important to the nation’s health? We spoke to Prof Nikolai Attard and Dr Gabriella Gatt to get the whole story.

Two years ago, Prof Nikolai Attard, the Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery, came up with the idea to have a mobile dental unit roaming the streets of Malta. The vehicle wouldn’t only do educational activities, but also compile a database of the country’s oral health.

Countless meetings and hundreds of hours of mental and manual labour later – along with some very generous donations  – have now turned this dream into reality. But getting here has been no mean feat… and it’s only the beginning!

“The project has had many different phases,” explains Prof Attard, “and it has only been possible thanks to a number of people and sponsors who have aided us throughout the journey with whatever we have needed.”

One of these people has been Dr Gabriella Gatt, the project coordinator of the Mobile Dental Unit and an assistant lecturer at the University of Malta. She has been involved in the project from the very beginning, and her hands-on role has seen this come to fruition.

Gabriella Gatt
Dr Gabriella Gatt

“We started off with researching mobile dental units and figuring out what we needed,” says Dr Gabriella. “It may seem obvious, but finding a big enough truck and the equipment, and everything else that goes into creating a fully-functional, mobile dental unit, was one of the hardest parts.”

Thankfully, many sponsors, sourced through RIDT, were willing to help out with this project. These are GSK Ltd, Cherubino Ltd, Good Causes Fund, Express Group, Rahuma International, Bart Enterprises Ltd, ProHealth Ltd and Suratek Ltd.

“Nothing’s been taken out internally in terms of resources,” adds Prof Attard. “This has been a self-sustained project supported entirely by the community which, so far, it is doing what it was designed to do: be an asset to the Dental Faculty.”

The mobile unit is now on the streets, and it’s ready to start its work by not only giving on-the-spot check ups to various people and communities, but also to compile an anonymous database of the status of the nation’s oral health. The latter will give current and future health care providers an invaluable source of information about the Maltese and Gozitan population.

“Whoever gets access to the Mobile Unit is going to be screened, and will receive a check up,” explains Dr Gatt. “The person will also be told if they need to visit a dentist or change their eating and/or drinking habits and their oral hygiene practices.  Ultimately, each person will be receiving tailored advice.”

“Moreover, in extreme emergencies, the Dental Unit will also do procedures on patients,” adds Prof Attard. “But the point of the Unit isn’t to do this per se, but rather to bring oral health – which can affect our overall health – to the forefront.”

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Interior of the Mobile Dental Clinic

The Mobile Dental Unit is going to be an invaluable asset to all those currently working in the field of dentistry. For example, Dr Gatt, who is currently working on a PhD researching tooth erosion in the younger generations, will be able to use data collected through this clinic on wheels to study the current local situation.

More importantly, however, the Mobile Unit will also be able to go to communities that may not always be able to go to the dentist themselves, including the elderly and the disabled.

“While organising a recent event, the Special Olympics – Special Smiles screening event, which took place in Naxxar, we were faced with the situation where not everyone invited could attend due to transport issues. With this truck-cum-clinic, we will now be able to go to them directly, and make oral health more accessible than ever before,” says Dr Gatt.

It’s also important to remember that bad oral health can affect the overall health of the body – the mouth, after all, is part of our body. “Infections, gum disease and other types of mouth-related illnesses can have an influence on the body, and, by identifying them earlier on, people will be able to enjoy better health overall,” explains Prof Attard.

Now that it’s on the road, the Mobile Dental Unit will be visiting schools, homes for the elderly, factories, parishes and other communities in the upcoming months and years, bringing good oral health to the country.

‘This will be a great exercise for everyone involved,” says Dr Gatt. “Patients get a free oral health check, while those on board will be able to teach the next generation of dental specialists through real-life work.”

In fact, the crew on the Mobile Dental Unit will, at times, include dental students, all from the different courses that the Faculty itself is offering. This will include hygienists (people who specialise in providing education about oral health), dental technologists (people who de0722RIDT_0011velop prostheses and other appliances), and  dental assistants (people who help the other professionals conduct their clinical activities).

“Putting it all together has been quite the ride… excuse the pun! But, thankfully, we have found the support we needed, and now look forward to commencing the second and more important part of the project,” Prof Attard concludes.

The completion of phase one means that the Mobile Dental Unit is now on the roads, and it is a drive to your Healthy Smile… So keep your eyes peeled for this truck as it sets out to do its job!

Help us fund more projects like this as well as research in all the faculties by donating to RIDT. Click here for more information on how to donate.

A Gift That Keeps on Giving

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From an early age we are taught that charity should be selfless, but what’s wrong with donating money towards something that could, one day, benefit you or your loved ones? Here, CEO of Research Trust (RIDT) Wilfred Kenely explains how community funding has aided research in a multitude of spheres.

Wilfred Kenely
Wilfred Kenely, RIDT CEO

Did you know that recent research conducted in Malta discovered a biomarker that will help doctors classify breast cancer patients for selection therapy? And that this discovery is so significant that two scientists working on it have been invited to present it at international fora? More importantly, however, did you know that €135,000 of the total sum needed to conduct this research were donated by people like you? Over the past decade, the University of Malta has  invested heavily in research across a wide spectrum of areas. Significant investments in equipment, laboratories and other infrastructures came as a direct result of the EU structural funds, made available once Malta joined the Union in 2004. Malta’s participation in the EU’s research programme also contributed to this investment. Yet, constant funds are needed to ensure that this activity is sustained and that our scientists get the best training they can. That requires additional funding mechanisms and a steady and sustainable flow of serious funding. Thus, RIDT is doing just that, but the organisation needs our help if it is to continue funding essential research.

“Over the past couple of years, RIDT has funded or received funds for  projects across a number of faculties and departments,” says Wilfred Kenely, the CEO of the Research Trust. “For obvious reasons, the bias is in favour of health and medicine, but not only. For instance, we have received funds which are financing a PhD scholarship in Maritime Law, and we have also attracted donations for studies in

GSK signing an agreement with University and RIDT in support of the Mobile Dental Clinic
GSK signing an agreement with University and RIDT in support of the Mobile Dental Clinic

digital marketing, ICT and economics, among others. “We are also finalising a mobile dental clinic, which will be conducting a national survey on oral health, while providing dental care to patients who may not be able to visit a dentist for one reason or another,” he adds.

The importance of this research – apart from the obvious benefits – is that  Malta’s researchers are at the forefront of world-class studies that could potentially change people’s lives for the better. And all this is possible thanks to your donations.

 “The biggest return that any donation can get is the long-term benefit,” Wilfred explains. “It’s an investment in the future of our country and our lives. “Obviously, no one can ever guarantee a return on investment in research, but it’s pivotal to keep in mind that the quality of life we are used to today is the result of an investment in research some time in the past. “The fact that, nowadays, we live longer lives in more comfortable settings is the result of research that happened over the years in medicine, technology and much, much more,” he argues. “ The fact that we are living a much better life today than say a 100 years ago, is not a coincidence.” “So we should not be skeptical about research taking place in Malta, on the contrary, we should believe more in our capabilities, and in the skills of our human capital. We should believe that, yes, given the right resources, collaborations and networking opportunities, there is a lot that our researchers can achieve and a lot that the University of Malta (UoM) can contribute to, even when it comes to the international community, which we already form a part of.”

Life Cycle
LifeCycle Foundation’s donation following the 2012 Cycling Challenge in favour of research in renal disease

Nevertheless, although the discoveries that have taken place in Malta are remarkable, Wilfred believes that the most important breakthrough has been the beginning of a change in public perception with regards to research.

“Donating towards a just cause is always a noble deed but, in parallel to that, RIDT has introduced a culture of supporting research through public financing and through philanthropy – a system that, together with strong government investments, keeps the research centres going across Europe and in the USA.’’ ‘We believe that research funding should be primarily the role of the government, with the support of the community, because we all stand to benefit from the result of such investment. This should apply not only to industrial research, but also to the more fundamental studies which have over time, always produced the most revolutionary leaps of thought.’

To make public funding easier, RIDT has devised various schemes that allow UoM staff and students to donate money. Moreover, as Wilfred explains: “the legal notice that established the Research Trust gives a tax incentive to any donations that are of €150 or upwards – and that applies to every individual or organization that pays taxes in Malta.” The RIDT has also received the backing of the Malta Community Chest Fund on research in the genetics of osteoporosis, a cause that the President of the Republic has taken a keen interest in. So much so, that our conversation was cut short by a telephone call to discuss one of their upcoming meetings.

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Shawn Baldacchino, recipient of a PhD Scholarship in Breast Cancer Research supported by Alive Charity Foundation and Action for Breast Cancer Foundation.

“It is so uplifting  to have the President, and so many others – NGOs, corporates, Foundations, individuals – taking interest in this research, and to see that they are endorsing our initiatives” Wilfred concludes. “All this gives us the energy to do more and to work harder.”

You can contribute towards RIDT-funded research by visiting their website, www.ridt.org.mt; the platform also allows you to pick the area you’d like your money to be utilised for. You can also support initiatives or attend one of the fundraising events organised by the trust, including their lunchtime concert series which will start again in October. For more information about RIDT, please call +356 2340 8201.  

At the Races: UoMRacing

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With a fraction of their international competitors’ budgets, the University of Malta Racing team has proven that dedication and perseverance are key to doing well in any competition. Here we speak to two of the organisation’s executive members to find out their plans for this year’s Formula SAE.

Supporting and investing in work by local researchers is fundamental for our competitiveness, while working towards a better future for our industry, our economy and our livelihood. One such project which we are proud to be supporting, is the University of Malta Racing (UoMRacing), a student organisation with a love for ingenuity in car racing.

2015 UoMRacing team
2015 UoMRacing team

“Our story started in 2012, when a group of friends got talking about car racing,” says Leonard Agius, the vice president of the organisation, which is based at the University of Malta. “Denis, our president, had heard of Formula SAE, which stands for Society of Automotive Engineers, and we were all interested. So we decided to speak to Dr Ing Maurizio Fenech from the Faculty of Engineering, who had taken part in the 2007 edition.”

The rest, as they say, is history; and in September 2014 – only two years after founding UoMRacing – the team placed 23rd out of 80 competitors at the Formula SAE race in Parma, Italy – an incredible feat considering that their €32,000 budget was eclipsed by those of the other teams, which can go up to €500,000 and even €1,000,000.

“The competition was made up of 55 petrol-engine cars and 25 electrical cars, all from different universities in Europe, China, Russia, America and Dubai,” says Matthew Buhagiar, the Secretary General. “Some of these teams are supported by major brands, including Porsche and Redbull, as some of those who take part in this competition go on to have stellar careers both in the automotive industry as well as in Formula racing.”

10995812_411781165663391_546774138949666986_oIn order to take part in this prestigious competition, the team behind this organisation must build a car from scratch, while taking into consideration a number of factors, including whether using lighter materials is worth the expenditure and how heavy the final product will be, among others.

“Notwithstanding our budget, we managed to do well, and we placed fifth in terms of the cost report, sixth in acceleration (even though our car weighed 295kgs as opposed to the 180-200kgs of our competitors), and 23rd overall,” explains Leonard. “Thankfully, however, the cost report helps level the ground for all competitors, and allows teams with less money to build a car with the resources they have.”

The competition is split into different sections, including dynamic events, acceleration, skit pad, autocross, and endurance (1.5hrs of laps) – “We didn’t manage the latter for six laps because of braking,” exclaims Leonard. “If we had, we would have probably ended up in the Top 15!”

The team is now working on this year’s car and, through support by various entities, the budget has increased by €18,000, giving them a total of €50k to work with.

“Before we are able to get anything done, we look for sponsors,” continues Matthew. “We’re lucky to have found several of these, including technical sponsors who help us with the actual construction of the automobile, as well as sponsors who support us in cash.”

Those sponsors include the Ministry for Education and Employment, Transport Malta, the University of Malta, PWC Malta, SKF, Tekmoulds, and Trellborg Sealing Solutions, as well as Playmobil, Contintental Cars, AdPro-Instruments, Farsons Foundation, Würth Malta, RS Components, Alarm Tech, and, of course, RIDT.

“We also organise badger karting events, simulations for Freshers’ Week at University, and have a stand at Science in the10246739_407036806137827_2449376903331096646_n City – all of which raise funds while giving us and our sponsors exposure,” he explains.

This year’s version of the car, which is currently being built at the Faculty of Engineering, will weigh about 70kgs less than last year’s car thanks to the lighter (yet more expensive) materials used in its construction.

“Last year the car cost around €15K, but this year it will cost around €45K,” says Leonard. “So far, we have managed to knock off 30kgs, but we’re hopeful that we’ll manage to get its weight down by 70kgs. The tyres this time round cost about a third of how much the total car cost last year, but it is something we sorely needed. We are also aiming to improve vehicle dynamics (how suspensions and tyres work).”

Once the car is completed, it will be transported to Varano de Melegari in Parma, Italy, where this year’s competition will take place. The cars and races will be judged by some of the top names in the automobile and racing industries, including Dr Andrea Toso, Head of R&D of Dallara Automobili, who took charge of vehicle dynamics for the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini.

“He liked our car last year, in fact he offered us an internship,” says Leonard. “But when we explained to him that we’re still in third year at University, he offered to come to Malta for free and give us a week-long course in vehicle dynamics – which he did! He is now also tutoring a thesis in automotive engineering; and next year he’s coming to do an aerodynamics course for us, too.”

This has been a wonderful experience for all those who have been involved in the project, and, together, they are furthering the fields of automobiles and motor vehicle engineering in Malta.

“More than anything, we believe this competition to be a great showcase for our University, and we’re now looking forward to taking part this September,” Matthew concludes.

What’s even more special about the UoMRacing team is that it is made up of students from various faculties, including engineering, physics, IT, pharmaceutical sciences (because they like cars!) and FEMA (the Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy) – it is a true joint venture that is proving to be incredible successful.

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You can be part of this fascinating world of research by helping many other researchers achieve their breakthroughs in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).