Could an Aspirin a Day keep Cancer at Bay?

Posted on Updated on

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).





Taking Over the Universe

Posted on Updated on


As the University of Malta’s Electronics Systems Engineering Department works on sending the first Maltese satellite into outer space, Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi explains the process and the benefits of such an accomplishment.

Dr Ing. Marc Anthony AzzopardiThe frontiers of science and technology are constantly being pushed forward, giving us a better understanding of the world we live in, and better ways of manipulating the elements that make it up. As time goes on, those advancements are taking place more often and at a faster rate than ever before. But where does Malta fit into the great scheme of things?

For anyone who has followed this blog from the beginning, it will come as no surprise when we say that Malta is definitely a player in the world of research and medical innovation. For a country that is a fraction of the size of most European capitals, the potential that is being unlocked is astonishing.

Yet one area that has often been overlooked – most probably because many people assumed we’d have no luck in it – is space and everything related to it, including satellites and space exploration.

But all that is set to change as the University of Malta’s Faculty of Engineering is finally working towards sending the first Maltese satellite to space by 2018!

“The idea came to me while at a conference in Seattle back in 2011,” says Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi, a lecturer and researcher within the Electronics Systems Engineering Department of the UoM. “It was there, at the DASC Conference, that I first saw nanosatellites and picosatellites built from little more than a mobile phone motherboard.

“As you can imagine, that is by no means a straight forward thing to do as all components within a satellite need to be able to resist oxidation, intense ionizing radiation, and even severe swings in temperature. In order to ensure that the satellite we’ll be sending can withstand the abnormal (by earthly standards) conditions, we have had to test hundreds of different components under extreme conditions.”

3D Model of UoMSat1 – the University of Malta’s first Pico-Satellite

The hardware will cost just over EUr 30,000 to complete, so a technology demonstrator (aka prototype) will be sent into space to allow Dr Azzopardi and his team to test the basic systems, and hence propose improvements for more ambitious missions.

The final device, which has been nicknamed the ‘UoMBSAT1’, will also carry a payload (a module housed within the satellite but that works independently), which will be monitoring certain characteristics of the earth’s ionosphere. It’s good to note that the payload is being created by Jonathan Camilleri, a PhD student who is currently working in Birmingham under the expert guidance of Prof. Matthew Angling. This Malta‑Birmingham collaboration is pivotal to the success of the satellite, hence the ‘MB’ in the name of the satellite.

“Jonathan’s project is an Impedance Probe, which will test the properties of the top side of the atmosphere, called the ‘ionosphere’, which is an electrically-charged layer. This layer, which protects us from radiation – literally, without it there would be no life on earth – also affects radio waves, meaning it messes with readings when scientists are conducting radio astronomy [the study of celestial objects at radio frequencies], or when trying to do earth observation from satellites using synthetic aperture radar.”

Through the satellite and the Impedance Probe, Dr Azzopardi and the rest of the team will be testing software to measure the ionosphere in real-time, potentially leading towards a reality in which this could be compensated for. Should this be successful, it would allow for scientists the world over to obtain more accurate data, and take clearer pictures of the earth.

Working on this with Dr Azzopardi is Darren Cachia, the first student to apply for a Master’s degree in Astrionic Systems Engineering at the UoM. Darren’s studies are being sponsored by the Endeavour Scholarship Scheme, which are partly funded by the EU, and his job is to design the top system architecture of the satellite along with the sub-system.

“When designing, there are a lot of things you need to keep in mind,” Darren explains. “You have to set requirements for everyone, whether they’re working on the physical parts of the satellite or on the software.”

file (1)
An early mock-up demonstrating the typical size of a Pico-Satellite

Darren’s job, in a nutshell, is to work on the on-board computer system for the UoMBSAT1 and its power supply, as well as the attitude control system that will help the team control the way it’s facing – an important task to ensure it functions properly, and continually gets information about the ionosphere.

“The team is ever changing, however, and we have people coming down from Switzerland, Turkey, France and Croatia this summer to help with the various systems,” continues Dr Azzopardi. “At the moment, aside from all the students working on this project, there are 12 academics – and the total number of people working on this will go up to 30 by the summer.”

For this particular satellite, the Electronics Systems Engineering Department is also working closely with the Universita di Sapienza di Roma, which will be launching its seventh collection of satellites this December.


“Once it’s complete, the satellite will be launched from one of the existing spaceports somewhere in the world, most probably the one in Kazakhstan. The satellite, however, is too small to be sent to space by itself, so it will hitchhike a ride there on a larger satellite,” he adds.

Among the many challenges being faced by the UoM in the lead-up to the completion of this satellite, is the fact that, as it stands, it would take the satellite 170 years for it come back to earth. This is mostly due to its size, weight and the velocity it will be travelling at, yet International Space Law states that no satellite should orbit the earth for longer than 25 years.

Even so, Dr Azzopardi and his team are adamant that they want to make this dream a reality, and give Malta a chance to shine even out in the cosmos. Will they succeed? We think so!

Watch the previous Launch of UniSat-6 Nano-Satellite Cluster by GAUSS Srl. in June 2014

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 Real Telekinesis

Posted on Updated on

What would have once seemed like an object straight out of a sci-fi film, is now a device that could help millions. Here, Professor Kenneth P Camilleri gives us an exclusive insight into the Brain-Machine Interface and how Malta is furthering the study.

Prof Ing Kenneth Camilleri

The human body is an amazing machine; one that does so much with very little thought or effort. Yet some of the things that are crucial in shaping and defining our individual reality, are often the things we take for granted.

Think for a second about the fact that you can read this. Your eyes are bending light and creating an image that your brain can read without a second thought. Think, also, of the fact that you are now breathing, thinking, digesting and pumping blood without making much of it. But how often do we stop and think what would happen if that had to stop?

Much like the aforementioned examples, communication and control are two devices most of us use in our daily lives. We pick things up, get dressed, hold a fork and clean ourselves, all this by using our hands which we have the the ability to control through our brain. And what about putting our point across? We talk, type and gesticulate continually.

For some people, however, that is impossible. But a new machine is now set to change all that.

“A Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) gives a person the ability to communicate with and control machines using brain signals instead of peripheral muscles,” explains Professor Kenneth P Camilleri, from the Department of Systems and Control Engineering who, along with his team, has been working on developing new algorithms to extract useful information from the brain signals.

“BMIs allow people with severely restricted mobility to control devices around them, increasing the level of independence and improving their quality of life,” he continues. “Moreover, BMIs may also be used by healthy individuals in various industries, such as in gaming, as an alternative means of communication and control. And they are expected to become ubiquitous in the future, too.”

The way these machines work is quite simple in theory: By acquiring the electrical brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes (such as those evoked by flickering visual stimuli), BMIs can then translate that information into a concrete actions, such as switching on a television set, or typing on a computer.

“We have developed BMIs whereby flickering visual stimuli are associated to commands, and the EEG signals are processed to detect the command associated to the brain pattern,” continues Professor Camilleri. “We have applied our BMI work totechnology_04_1_temp-1335791250-4f9e8e92-620x348 three different practical applications that demonstrate their effectiveness, namely as a Brain-Controlled Music Player (dubbed the ‘Walnut’), a brain-controlled motorised bed, and a brain-controlled keyboard.

“Moreover, Maltese researchers’ experience and growing interest in BMIs provide an opportunity to innovate and break new ground in this area,” he adds. “We have been studying computational methods to process brain signals acquired from the scalp for over 12 years, and we have developed new algorithms that may extract useful information from the brain’s signals.”

Among the many individuals working with Professor Camilleri, are Dr Tracey Camilleri and Dr Owen Falzon, both of whom are contributing to this work on Brain-Machine Interfaces. In addition, Dr Tracey Camilleri also supervised Ms Rosanne Zerafa, who worked on the brain-controlled music player, while Dr Owen Falzon supervised Mr Norbert Gauci on the brain-controlled motorised bed.

As RIDT, we are now trying to get funding for this fantastic research because, as Professor Camilleri puts it, “Projects such as these require a lot of money, particularly for more research resources for this activity and to recruit doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers to work in this area.”

The work now continues, but one thing’s for certain: No one knows what the future of BMIs will hold, but if the past is of any guarantee, we can safely assume that it will be extraordinary.

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 of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).




The Humanity Behind Smart Animal Breeding

Posted on

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).


No Kidding With the Kidneys

Posted on Updated on

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).