Month: January 2016

Culture-Supported Research

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Jonathan Shaw

17 years after it was first held, Teatru Unplugged has become a highly-anticipated fixture on the local social calendar. Here, founder and producer of the popular concert Jonathan Shaw, tells us why the money raised from the last edition of Teatru Unplugged, went to cancer research.

Art and research have long been bedfellows; so much so, that some of the best anatomical drawings we have, including a series by all-round Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci, were done by painters conducting research for their art.

That relationship still exists in the modern world, but the ways in which it is carried out are much more varied; so varied, that some may even assume that those two elements inhabit different spheres altogether.

Yet, as entrepreneur Jonathan Shaw, who is known as one of the minds behind one of the most successful cultural ventures on the island, knows, together they can still do great things.

“Teatru Unplugged was an idea generated in 1997 between Nirvana Azzopardi and I,” Shaw explains. “The concept was to attract a new and younger audience to the Manoel Theatre, a place which was mostly the haunt of classical theatre-goers for classical events. To counteract this, we came up with a musical variety show that includes rock, jazz and bits of classical in short bursts, so the patron would get a taste of the different genres.”

Today, Teatru Unplugged is the longest-12002969_1049952728357985_2710742720240115273_nstanding fixture on our cultural calendar, attracting both great names to perform in it and host it (a list for the latter includes Lou Bondi, Pawlu Borg Bonaci, Clare Agius, Josef Bonello and Pia Zammit), as well as a great audience to enjoy the show.

“A part of the proceedings or the money raised through initiatives associated with Teatru Unplugged have always gone to good causes,” Shaw continues, “but ever since Nirvana passed away, we’ve committed ourselves to doing it towards cancer-related causes.

“This year we decided to go further than that, and got involved with RIDT, the research Trust of the University of Malta. We believe that Investing in research to help find possible or potential solutions to a problem is just as important as helping those who are currently facing that scenario.

“Nonetheless, I see that it may seem less humane or emotional, maybe even clinical and scientific, but, in my opinion, it’s important to channel support to the long-term solution at the root. In other words, to use an analogy, if you have poverty, you can give money so they can buy food in the short-term, but you  can also invest in training programmes to help those people in the long run. And, historically, the latter is more important.”

Before taking this decision, Shaw spoke to Nirvana’s parents, who still have an active role and say into where the proceedings go. “They also see the importance of donating towards research,” Shaw adds.

12391245_1088299164523341_8298021488168237260_n“Moreover, the research funded through RIDT is being done locally at the University of Malta so, in a way, raising funds for RIDT works both ways. This year, for example, we’re supporting a PhD student for a local scholarship.

“And, yes, from a practical business point of view, when you’re faced with a world-wide situation like cancer, and when so many countries and companies are trying to find a cure, many may find it hard to believe that Malta will be the place in which a cure will be found. But we can’t reason like this. We have to believe in our researchers – even when we know that there is no immediate result, but a long term investment in the research process ,” he adds.

Shaw’s determination to see the funds go towards research came after he visited the labs and researchers at the University of Malta, and was guided through all the breakthroughs they’ve made and the plans they have for the future. “But there’s so much more that needs to be done, and RIDT needs more funding to be able to continue its work,” he concludes.

The hard work behind this year’s Teatru Unplugged yielded another successful edition, and the memory of Nirvana still lives on in this incredible endeavor and all that comes out of it. The research is also going at a relentless pace. Nevertheless, funds are continuously needed to ensure it doesn’t cease.

You can be part of this fascinating world of research too, by helping many others 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).


The Humanity Behind Smart Animal Breeding

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Through the compilation of biological data, scientists and farmers are working together to ensure the health of cattle and pigs, increase the quality of the products derived from them, and to maximise their productivity. Here, Dr George Azzopardi explains how this is being done, and how this system could revolutionise the world as we know it.

There is no denying that farming was the singular most important advancement in the history of the human race. After all, it was the knowledge of the cycle of the seasons and the understanding of how crops grow that first led us to shed our nomadic tendencies and settle down.

The rest, as they say and is so apt in this context, is history.

Yet for the world-changing revolution it spawned, farming remained relatively unchanged for millennia and, apart from a few tricks of the trade picked up by the many generation of farmers that ensued, it was the industrial revolution that truly transformed farming from a manual labour to a machine-dominated world.

Today, technology also plays an important part in the growing of our crops, the rearing of livestock, and the primary (meat, milk) and secondary (leather, animal fat) products that they give us.Yet while all this may be one step further away from Mother Nature, the future has never looked brighter for farmers who live off the land, and the animals those farmers look after.

“The idea behind Smart Animal Breeding with Advanced Machine Learning Techniques is to analyse animals’ biological (genetic markers) and behavioural (e.g. quantity of food per day) data, as well as environmental (e.g. temperature, humidity) type of data, in order to automatically determine certain factors that lead to various circumstances,” explains Dr George Azzopardi, a lecturer at the Department of Intelligent Computer Systems within the ICT Faculty of the University of Malta, and a co-supervisor of a PhD student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who is studying Smart Animal Breeding.

“This is done to understand various outcomes, such as what is the best combination of genetics, behaviour and environment that makes a very healthy and productive cow. For the time being, the project is mainly based in the Netherlands, where the dairy industry is particularly important and where farms are already running very advanced systems,” he continues. “These farms are equipped with many sensors that can measure the daily activities of every cow. These include the quality of the milk (by measuring the quantity of proteins and fat, among other things), the number of steps a cow makes every day, how much it drinks and eats, how long it spends chewing, and how long it sits for, for example.”

By understanding the numbers within a context of numerous healthy cows and pigs, in the future, farmers, scientists and veterinarians will be able to tell whether the cow or pig in question is healthy simply through these sensorial observations.

“This modelling technique will also be able to give us early signs of disease and make it easier to treat illness within cattle. Therefore, it will bring the risk of having diseases spreading across a farm, which may lead to devastating results, to a minimum,” he continues. “Of course, this will prove to be vital technology for farms that have thousands of livestock.”

Although the human brain is an enviable intelligent device, it’s not trivial for a human being to determine complicated interactions between many factors. This is where machine learning (a field within Artificial Intelligence) can contribute to applications where a lot of data is available. Machine learning is a term referring to the development of algorithms that are programmed in such a way so as to automatically learn the relationships between the involved components of some given data.

The three farms involved in this project, in fact, have been collecting and storing tonnes of data for the last three years, and there is now enough data to start making sense out of it. The project in which Dr Azzopardi is involved will be investigating and developing machine learning techniques to determine important information from this data.

What is interesting to point out is that this project was initiated by the farmers themselves, who formed a shared consortium with the Dutch government and invested a lot of money in it. In fact, Dr Azzopardi and his colleagues in the Netherlands have received a research grant of approximately €500,000 for this four-year project, which will start in January 2016.

“Yet this project has a lot more potential,” adds Dr Azzopardi. “While we are currently focusing on the animal farming industry, the technology that we will be using is also applicable to other industries, including engineering and healthcare.
In Malta, for example, there are around 40,000 people who suffer from diabetes and who are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy [when damage occurs to the retina due to diabetes]. Each year, each of those 40,000 people has to have a photo of their retina taken, which amounts to 80,000 pictures that need to be checked manually by professionals.

“Using the same principle, we could teach a machine how to distinguish between a healthy and unhealthy retina, and to simply flag up any pictures that require the attention of a specialist. This will let professionals focus on important cases, and on the treatment of the problem… And this isn’t a farfetched dream, either, as it’s already being implemented abroad,” Dr Azzopardi explains.

Among other things, Dr Azzopardi encourages more Maltese industries to come in contact with the research being carried out in Malta, while he states that “investing in intelligent systems can help maximise performance.”

You can be part of this fascinating world of research, too, by helping many others 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).


Facing Abreast

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The fight against breast cancer doesn’t begin and end in October; it lasts 365 days a year. Here, Gertrude Abela, the President of Europa Donna Malta, tells us how, together, Europa Donna Malta and RIDT, are paving the way to a better future.


It was back in 1989 that Breast Cancer Support Group was founded; and, as an NGO, its role was to help and support women and families going through the trauma of breast cancer. Then, in 2004, the Group became affiliated with Europa Donna, the European Breast Cancer Coalition, and from then on, the Group rebranded to Europa Donna Malta.

The Group’s current president is Gertrude Abela, a passionate and driven woman, who is also a mother of five and grandmother of one.

“I first joined the Breast Cancer Support Group 15 years ago, when I, myself, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was absolutely surreal. I was lying in bed when I then felt a small lump just underneath my arm. I didn’t make much of it, but I did keep going back to it and trying to figure out what it was…

“Since I didn’t want to worry my family, I told a friend. She offered to come with me to the doctor’s, and from an ultrasound, I was referred to a surgeon, and the next thing I knew I was being operated on.  Then the radiotherapy and chemo started…”

Gertrude is a survivor, but she does admit that there were many times breast cancer almost took over her life.

“It’s a whole saga of ups and downs; hope and despair.  But I had a lot of things to look forward to and to keep me going,” she admits.

But Gertrude also wanted to get her story out there and to help other women the way she was helped during some of the darkest hours of her life, and it was then that she joined Breast Cancer Support Care Group.

 “Fast-forward a few years and I’m now the President of the organisation,” she says. “This involves the day-to-day running of the organisation, visiting patients when needed, organising seminars and talks and fundraising events – all with the help of my committe, of course.”

On top of raising awareness and funds, Europa Donna Malta also befriends those who are undergoing the process to help them deal with all the hardships at hand. They also hold regular lectures to help professionals understand the emotions experienced by those battling breast cancer.

“One of our most valuable and perpetual initiatives remains the collecting and distribution of funds, however,” Gertrude continues. “Those funds go to anything from creating, printing and distributing  breast cancer awareness books and leaflets, to an educational fund to help health professionals further their studies, to research taking place at the University of Malta by Maltese researchers.”

Today, the Breast Cancer Research Group of the University of Malta is made up of researchers coming from various departments, including the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry, the Department of Pathology, and the Department of Surgery, along with the Department of Pathology and Surgery of Mater Dei Hospital.

One of this Group’s most noteworthy successes was their identification of a marker in cells that controls the growth of blood cells and they are now trying to understand its role within breast cancer, which may result in a key step in the fight against breast cancer!

Until then, breast cancer remains an afflication that affects many – including men – and research is pivotal to help cure and, more importantly, prevent it. That’s why, as RIDT, we believe it is important to continue investing in our researchers, who are raising the stakes and giving new hope to patients and family worldwide.

You can be part of this fascinating world of research too by supporting many other researchers 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).


No Kidding With the Kidneys

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Although the kidneys are vital organs, we often overlook their crucial role in our overall health. Here, Dr Valerie Said Conti explains how current renal research being undertaken at the University of Malta could help identify the genetics of a number of rare kidney diseases.

Dr Valerie Said Conti

Most of us have a basic idea of what kidneys do. But considering their indispensable role in our bodies – that of purifying the blood and excreting urine – we often ignore them until something goes wrong. That is a luxury most of us can afford while we’re healthy, but what happens if you’re born with abnormal kidneys or with ones that don’t function properly?

As with many other situations, prevention can be better than cure and, at the University of Malta, a team of researchers, with the collaboration of a number of international organisations, is currently working towards discovering the ‘why’ it happens in order to figure out the ‘how’ to avoid or cure it.

“While this programme is still in its infancy, in the long term, it aims to study the genetics of a number of rare kidney diseases in an attempt to understand why the development of the kidney in the unborn child does not proceed normally,” explains Dr Valerie Said Conti, who, apart from being visiting lecturer at the University of Malta, is also a consultant paediatrician in renal disease at Mater Dei Hospital and a researcher in renal disease at the University of Malta.

During this particular study, researchers will be looking at two things in particular: the first will be a way of identifying what happens inside the womb that may lead to a child being born with abnormal kidneys, “for example, the broad spectrum of congenital anomalies of the kidneys and urinary tract,” adds Dr Valerie. While the second, will be to understand why kidneys could malfunction, “for example, in the congenital nephrotic syndrome, which is an inherited disorder that manifests shortly after birth,” she explains.

It has now been almost a year since this project first kicked off, and like any other of this scope and size, it required quite a bit of planning.

“No research is possible without blood samples, however, so the first step was to procure a collection of blood and urine samples from individuals with renal disorders for the Malta BioBank at the University of Malta,” continues Dr Valerie. “Thankfully, we have been successful in obtaining informed consent from a number of families who have donated blood samples.

“Now, the next step is to analyse the blood samples in the laboratory, and what we’ll be looking for are changes in the genetic material – those which we call mutations – that result in the formation of abnormal proteins that send the wrong messages during the different stages of kidney development,” she explains. “Also, something worth mentioning is that one of the techniques being used during this study is that of whole exon sequencing, which is a fairly recent innovation in looking for defects in the genome [genetic material].”

This research, like so many others currently taking place at the University of Malta, has only been possible thanks to contributions donated towards the Life Cycle Challenge, which, on top of using the funds to improve the management of patients receiving treatment on the renal unit, made funds available for research purposes for the first time.

RIDT played a role in the allocation of these funds, and we look forward to distributing more funds to more projects and to continue fueling breakthroughs through the research currently taking place on our island. In fact, that’s why it’s so vital that you continue to support Malta-based researchers and research.

“Ultimately, the purpose of this research is to understand what causes the defects in the genome that result in kidney disease. The collaboration between researchers at an international level is expected to result in the development of pathways to prevent them from happening and also in the development of medicines to try and control the complications of these disorders. This will result in an improvement in the quality of life of our patients and their families – and why wouldn’t you want to support that?” concludes Dr Valerie.

Why wouldn’t you indeed!

You can be part of this fascinating world of research, too, by helping many others 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).