Month: June 2016

Caravaggio: Rediscovering the Lost Years

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Keith-SciberrasCaravaggio is nowadays considered one of the most important artists who’ve ever lived… But this has always been the case! Here, Professor Keith Sciberras explains how the University of Malta is at the forefront of Caravaggio research.

From all the artists who ever worked in Malta, few – if any – have managed to match Caravaggio’s success and influence. Considered to be a genius of painting, and an equal to the likes of Raffaello and Botticelli, Caravaggio single-handedly revolutionised the course of art history back in the 17th century with a strikingly powerful realist style, dramatic intensity of settings, and his use of lighting.

“But Caravaggio wasn’t always as respected as he is today,” explains Professor Keith Sciberras, the Head of Department of History of Art at the University of Malta (UoM), and the coordinator of the University’s Caravaggio Studies Programme. “Back in his lifetime, he was admired and disdained in equal measures, and I believe that the fact that the Caravaggio Scholarship [the study of his work] only kicked off about 100 years ago stands testament to that.”

As some of you may know, Caravaggio’s life is often divided into two main periods: his time in Rome, and the later years in Naples, Malta and Sicily. The divide here is done due to his fleeing of Rome following the murder of a young man. “The problem with most studies about Caravaggio is that they’ve almost always focused solely on his early years when he was in Rome, leaving a large chunk of his life and art in the dark,” adds Prof Sciberras.

Professor Sciberras, who is a world authority on the artist, has lectured at many major universities and museums around the world, including the MET in New York, the National Gallery in London, and the Prado in Madrid.

“All across the world there seems to be a surge of interest in the artist’s work – and I could see that judging by how many students attended lectures about the artist, be it in Stockholm, Copenhagen or Frankfurt – and that’s fantastic because, in many ways, the Maltese years are at the centre of Caravaggio’s career. What happened in Malta in 1607 is a brilliant example of the humanist climate of the time, in fact: he was accepted as a Knight of St John even though Pope Clement VIII had issued a death sentence against him after committing murder!”

Now, the UoM has created its Caravaggio Programme to undertake, facilitate and promote MTE5NDg0MDU0OTE0MzAzNTAzresearch on this influential artist by attracting the most important scholars from all over the world, and even brilliant students who are researching his life and art. Through all this, the University has identified a niche area of research that has become internationally successful, and is now acknowledged as one of the leaders in Caravaggio research globally.

The Caravaggio Studies Programme is focusing on the later years of this anti-classist artist, and it has been so successful that scholarly writings about the artist’s life in the late years written before 1999 are now almost obsolete. “We have published so much, uncovered so many new facts, and formulated so many new hypotheses that the whole story has changed,” explains Prof Sciberras.

“As part of this Programme – and on top of the research that’s taking place for the first time anywhere in the world – we’re also organising public lectures for which we invite major lecturers and academics… I think we’ve invited all the major Caravaggio scholars from all over the world, in fact! And we even have a number students studying Caravaggio’s life and work – including one at PhD and another at MA level.

“Moreover, for the first time since Caravaggio’s death, there’s been a concentration of academic energy on the artist’s final years all over the world,” he continues. “It also helped that all this coincided with the 400th anniversary of various things Caravaggio did during his lifetime, including coming to Malta and moving to Rome, which has, in turn, led to an incredible surge in public interest.”

The culmination of this research – at least in terms of what the majority of the public will get to see – will be a documentary about Caravaggio’s life, created using the research that has taken place at the UoM.

“Caravaggio’s work is so powerful, and his life story is as interesting as it gets,” says Prof Sciberras. “There’s so much excitement… The fact that he was the underdog, the fact that he was both the hero and the anti-hero of his own story… There’s murder, there’s celebration, escape, becoming a fugitive, and even being celebrated as a fugitive – it’s a story of climaxes and anti-climaxes. In many ways, he portrays the story of what I call ‘the power of the brush’ (the power the humanities had and still have). His intellectual strength for invention means that the importance of protecting such a creative mind – even when he was morally wrong – was more important than justice; his work was simply more forceful than the blemishes of his lifestyle.”

Michelangelo_Caravaggio_021The research for this documentary involves a myriad of methodologies. Firstly, there is connoisseurship, which is looking at paintings, studying them, and comparing them with the works of others to chart out what he produced and how influential it was. Then there is historical art research, which involves the contextual research from the archives to try to build up the mechanics of patronage and answer questions like: Who where the patrons? And what was the real idea behind their commissions? And, finally, technical studies, where the UoM is studying the material structure of the works (pigments that he used, taking X-rays, stratigraphy [checking the different strata of the paintings] and pentimenti [how the artist changed his mind while painting, which can be seen from X-rays and stratigraphy]).

“The documentary will tell Caravaggio’s story, explain the methodology of research, and reveal all the new things we’ve discovered about him. The documentary, which will air on TVM, will be one of four documentaries about research taking place at the UoM, and it’s incredibly important to note that the humanities play a very significant role with two out of four documentaries: one about underwater archaeology and ours,” Prof Sciberras concludes.

The filming for this documentary, the script for which has been written by Prof Sciberras himself, will begin in the next couple of weeks and will conclude by the end of summer. There is no set date for the airing of this documentary yet, but we’ll be sure to let you know as soon as we do!

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).







Could an Aspirin a Day keep Cancer at Bay?

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Could it be that the prevention of certain types of cancer, including colorectal cancer, lie in something as simple and as readily-available as aspirin? According to Professor Rena Balzan’s study, it’s highly-likely to be a resounding yes!

Rena BalzanIf Professor Rena Balzan’s name sounds familiar, it’s most probably because you’ve read one of her many published novels and collections of poems, including Il-Ħolma Mibjugħa (The Betrayed Dream), published in 1982, Ilkoll ta’ Nisel Wieħed (Bonds in the Mirror of Time), published in 1987 with a 2nd edition in 1998, and Fiż-Żifna tal-Ibliet (In Tune with City Life), published in 1995. But Rena Balzan is a Renaissance woman whose achievements go far beyond the realm of literature.

Specialising in Genetics at the State University of Milan in Italy, and later on being awarded the PhD degree in Biotechnology/Molecular Biology from Cranfield University, UK, Prof Balzan was one of Malta’s first female researchers – breaking down the stigma revolving around women’s university attendance and their role in sciences and research back in the late 60s and 70s. Even so, it is her latest research that is truly turning heads.

“It has long been known that aspirin can help prevent thrombosis and stroke,” Prof Balzan explains, and sensing our surprise at the revelation continues “but, relatively recently, it was discovered that, yes, an aspirin a day can actually help in the prevention of colorectal cancer and even in other types of tumours.”

Prof Balzan’s involvement in this research is understanding the how and why aspirin cf659b1180d9c9ea7b9bd67f4e81fe1caffects cancer cells – and the most unexpected part is that she is using baker’s yeast (the kind you’d find in most kitchens to make pizza dough or bread) to discover the answer. In fact, her work with yeast goes back a long way, to the time she set up the Yeast Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Laboratory in the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Malta.

“Contrary to popular belief, yeast is considered to be a higher organism, not a type of bacterium. In fact, in terms of organisation, yeast cells bear significant resemblance to the way human cells work – so much so, that yeast is also being used in research related to human neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Moreover, the research using yeast is done in vivo [within a living organism] rather than in vitro [vitro is a word derived from the Latin word ‘vitreous’, meaning glass, i.e. in a test-tube]. Therefore, the results are much clearer and data more reliable.”

‘But why aspirin?’ we find ourselves asking her. Turns out, aspirin was one of the first
non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs ever discovered, and its properties extend to causing a type of programmed cell death – called apoptosis – in cancer cells.

Using yeast, Prof Balzan and her team have discovered that cells lacking manganese
superoxide dismutase (an antioxidant usually found in mitochondria – the cell’s energy-generating organelles) can cause this death in cells that, like cancer cells, are sensitive to oxidative stress, but not in normal cells. In other words, this could lead to understanding why aspirin can cause cancer cells (but not normal cells) to die – and, in the future, this study of aspirin could actually lead to the development of more efficacious aspirin-like drugs and novel anti-cancer therapies.

As Prof Balzan explains, it was while Dr Neville Vassallo was doing his M.Phil degree under her mentorship in the late 1990s, that he first decided to use aspirin on yeast cells. “The cells treated with aspirin died [and] this really roused my interest in [the drug],” she told Dr Gianluca Farrugia, one of her main contributors, in an interview for THINK Magazine.

The study has now advanced manifold since those early days, and recent research in long-term aspirin use has shown that the drug can even lower the risk of stomach and oesophageal cancers by almost 50 per cent!

“But the benefits of aspirin may extend beyond just cancer prevention,” Prof Balzan explains. “There have been studies suggesting that daily aspirin intake can also delay or prevent the recurrence or return of common cancers in patients who have already survived from cancer. In fact, at present, there is a very large clinical trial underway in the UK to prove this once and for all. This trial involves about 11,000 survivors of early bowel, oesophageal, prostate, stomach and breast cancers who are being given daily aspirin for five years to see if the drug reduces – significantly or not – the chance of these cancers recurring.”

‘So… people should just start taking an aspirin a day then?’ we query.

aspirin_2945793b“Well, it’s not that simple,” she answers. “It’s important that every person seeks their doctor’s advice and ensures that he or she is not allergic to aspirin and that it won’t affect the results of other medicine they may be on at the time. But, in theory, yes, taking an aspirin a day reduces the risk of certain kinds of cancer drastically.”

This study, which is being financed by the Malta Council for Science and Technology through the R&I Technology Development Programme (Project R&I-2015-001), is definitely one to look out for. And we’ll be keeping an eye out for new developments… So, watch this space!

IMPORTANT: Always consult your doctor before taking any medicine, including aspirin.

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




Showcasing Brains

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In the second part of the final installment in the series dedicated to brain-related research, neuroscientist Professor Giuseppe Di Giovanni explains the inspiration behind the Malta Neuroscience Network and how it is helping to bring brain-related research to the forefront.

“The human brain is the most complex organ in the known universe. This complexity makes it the last and hardest frontier in medical research, and unravelling the brain’s secrets could change the lives of millions of people of all ages who suffer from neurological and psychological conditions, lesions or addictions.” Professor Giuseppe Di Giovanni

It was a warm afternoon in September 2014 when Professor Giuseppe Di Giovanni first realised that while there were many people interested and working in neuroscience, very few of them communicated between one another. This epiphany came as he was thinking about the Studio 7-produced RIDT and Science and the City documentary, Jien Min Jien, which outlined the research that was taking place at the University of Malta at the time. Professor Di Giovanni was one of those involved in the project, and organised the part about how neuroscience research had grown over the previous 10 years.

As a neuroscientist himself, Professor Di Giovanni has been working on understanding the pathophysiology of the central monoaminergic systems of different neuropsychiatric disorders (which, in layman’s terms, means the way diseases, such as depression, Parkinson’s and Alzehimer’s, affect the brain) for over 20 years. That, as well as his work attracting funding from many international bodies, such as ERUK UK, Physiological Society UK, PON Italy, and various national Maltese bodies (including the MCST R&I 2013 Grant), made him the ideal candidate for it and for what was to come.

“Malta is a small country, therefore collaborations among scientists is of pivotal importance for the scientific development of the nation and the education of our students,” he says. “So I went to Professor Richard Muscat’s [former pro-rector for Research & Innovation at the UoM] office and I said to him, ‘Richard, what if we form a virtual neuroscience institute to bring together all of the neuroscience researchers in Malta?’

“I could see the enthusiasm on his face. In fact, he immediately said ‘Yes’,” he continues. “After that, I started contacting everyone working on neuroscience, and anyone who I thought would be enthusiastic about this proposal to create a network of people, all with different neuroscience specialisms.” Among those people to first support the Malta Neuroscience Network (MNN) was Wilfred Kenely, the CEO of RIDT.

Working together, Professor Di Giovanni and Wilfred Kenely worked on holding the first Malta Brain Awareness Week (BAW), and fundraising which was meant for Professor Di Giovanni’s research on depression and epilepsy, was channeled to the entire research community. That funding will now, after being peer-reviewed, fund the first two projects.

“BAW is the global campaign that aims to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research,” says Professor Di Giovanni. “This global celebration, launched by The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, presents an opportunity to bring attention to advances in brain science and advocate for science funding.  The best part is that activities are limited only by the organisers’ imaginations and include open days at neuroscience labs, exhibitions about the brain, lectures on brain-related topics, social media campaigns, displays at libraries and community centers, and classroom workshops, among others.” But that is just the tip of the iceberg of what the MNN network was set up to do.

The Network aims to encourage and facilitate interdisciplinary research so as to bring together academic members from all the Faculties of the UoM with an interest in the rapidly-growing field of Neuroscience, as well as to promote interdisciplinary dialogue among all those involved in neuroscience.

“But we also want it to go further,” he explains. “The MNN’s role is also to foster research and training in neuroscience at UoM; to sponsor and coordinate seminars by leading neuroscientists from home and abroad; to offer study units in neuroscience that may be included in both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes; to collaborate with local and overseas centres, universities, programmes and individuals with similar purpose and scope; and, just as importantly, to raise public awareness in neuroscience, brain disorders, and mental health through public talks, evening courses, and an annual Brain Awareness Week.”

Although it is still in its infancy, the Network has already been accepted as the 43rd member of the European Neuroscience Societies by FENS – “A pivotal affiliation in the development of neuroscience in Malta,” he says. And it is also collaborating with the Mediterranean Neuroscience Society (of which Professor Di Giovanni is the treasurer).

“The Mediterranean Neuroscience Society was created to support and help strengthen all initiatives that bring together Mediterranean neuroscientists. This has been achieved through schools and biannual meetings that have proven to be highly beneficial, not only for the scientific exchanges, but also in terms of training opportunities for students and young researchers. I am very happy that, after a successful 2015 meeting in Cagliari (Sardinia, Italy), the next meeting will take place in Malta in 2017, with the MNN being involved in its organisation,” he explains.

Rizzolatti Di Giovanni
Prof Rizzolatti & Prof Di Giovanni

Along with Professor Di Giovanni, the MNN is made up of numerous other members, including Professor Helen Grech, Dr George Azzopardi and Professor Mario Valentino, whose research we covered over the past few months. Moreover, Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti, who discovered mirror neurons, and Professor Vincenzo Crunelli from Cardiff University, who is a world-renowned neuroscientist specialising in epilepsy, are also part of the network.

The importance of such a Network cannot be overestimated, however. Going back to the initial quote by Professor Di Giovanni, the brain is our most precious tool – be it for health, problem solving, or the advancement of technology and society. Yet, although many would agree with this, few take the time to truly acknowledge the importance of research related to the brain.

The MNN is now changing that, bringing to the fore the people and the research that is taking place on our island and connecting them to many international channels. And while there is no doubt that there is still a long way to go before the brain becomes a priority – a statement that beggars belief in itself – Professor Di Giovanni (along with the MNN) are definitely on the right track.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT). To join the Malta Neuroscience Network Programme, please fill in this brief online membership application.