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!
If 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 affects 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.
“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).
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).
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.
With 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.
“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).”
Shawn 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.
“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).
How can differentiating cancerous cells help researchers come up with a better cure for certain cancers? To find out, we spoke to Dr Pierre Schembri-Wismayer, a man who has dedicated many years of his life to researching a revolutionary kind of cancer therapy.
According to Dr Pierre Schembri Wismayer, there are two types of cancer in the world: the ones that are instigated from repeated exposure to toxins (‘Outside’ cancer), and the ones that develop randomly in both children and adults (‘Inside’ cancer), which include brain, blood and bone cancer.
As a senior lecturer at the University of Malta’s Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, Dr Pierre Schembri-Wismayer has spent years working on a cure for the latter; a cure that can differentiate immortal cancer stem cells from mortal cells.
“Although different cancers require different treatments, all the cures we have so far can be destructive as well as beneficial,” explains Dr Schembri Wismayer. “Excluding surgery, which is still invasive, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can be quite harmful to the body… In fact, people undergoing these therapies tend to lose their hair, feel sick, and contract more infections.
“Moreover, normal cells grow old and die naturally while most cancer cells are constantly in their adolescent phase, meaning that, as a person grows weaker from the disease, the cancer cells inside their body grow relatively stronger.”
Then, 20 years ago, research revealed that this process could be reversed in certain cancers that afflict both adults and children. It was a groundbreaking theory, and one that has since been proven to be a valid candidate for cancer therapy.
“Differentiation Therapy is something I began researching when I was doing my PhD, and I’m still very involved in this. In fact, I’m currently on a two-year sabbatical so as to focus more on its workings,” Dr Schembri Wismayer tells us. “One of the ideas I’ve had with regards to this was to look at some of the world’s natural differentiating systems to see how cell behaviour there could help us differentiate cancer.”
“The signals that these stem cells received were clearly instructing them to become adult and fully differentiated tissues when needed – these animals don’t grow a spare leg all the time, just when they need to. And since cancer cells are like stem cells, in that they can do or be various things, then instructing them to grow old and die using these same signals didn’t seem so far fetched!”
The best part about Differentiation Therapy, however, isn’t the fact that it can cure cancers more easily than other treatments, but that it can do so without harming the healthy cells.
“For the first time, instead of injecting chemicals into a patient’s body and hoping that they will kill more cancer cells than healthy ones, we can now be sure that the cure will only kill cancer cells by forcing them to grow old, and die naturally,” he adds.
Although this cure is not available yet for most cancers, it has come a long way in the past 20 years and it will, hopefully, offer patients of all ages – including children – a chance for survival against various kinds of ‘Inside’ cancer, including bone and brain cancer in the not too distant future.
“‘Outside’ cancers are cancers that develop over time from repeated DNA damage from toxins and are therefore almost never seen in children. These include skin, lung and colon cancers, and require a completely different treatment to the Differentiation Therapy,” explains Dr Schembri Wismayer. “In fact, here we focus our research on immunotherapy.”
The difference between those that can be treated using Differentiation Therapy and those that cannot, is that of one single random driving mutation being largely responsible for the cancer. In fact, it is this random gene defect that allows the research team to target cancer in children. Even so, medicine and research are advancing at an unprecedented rate. Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), which was 100 per cent incurable 20 years ago, is now 90 per cent curable! So there is a lot of hope in this sphere.
Unsurprisingly, this research has gained a lot of interest from the public and NGOs, including the Alive Charity Foundation, who has specifically chosen research in Differentiation Therapy as one of the beneficiaries of this year’s cycle challenge.
“Alive’s donation will help us fund a PhD student to focus on childhood cancers of the brain, blood and bone, and to provide a new pair of able hands to the team,” says Dr Pierre.
“He or she will also be able to go on a short-term scientific mission through the European Consortium, StemChem, and gain invaluable knowledge and techniques that will be able to help us further our research in Differentiation Therapy, especially in brain tumour research, which is a relative new area for us,” Dr Pierre concludes.
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, including medicine, archaeology and technology. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).