university of malta

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).







The Quest to Quantify Diabetes

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What is the link between the Maltese lifestyle and diabetes type 2? And how will figuring this out help health professionals and the general public? Here, Dr SARAH CUSCHIERI MD explains the thought-process and the implications of The University of Malta’s Health and Wellbeing Study, SAĦĦTEK.

Sarah CushchieriIn 1981 a diabetes mellitus type 2 prevalence study was conducted; its findings are still used to predict the diabetes burden on Malta’s healthcare system today.

But life and lifestyle in Malta have changed greatly since then – and, with more of us eating a westernised diet (as opposed to the more-Mediterranean oriented one back then), and fewer of us exercising, among other factors, that study has now become almost obsolete.

And that’s where SAĦĦTEK comes in.

Over the years ‘it is expected that the diabetes and obesity frequencies in Malta have increased,’ reads the project’s official document. ‘The increase in diabetes also comes from the strong family history of diabetes mellitus type 2 in Malta.’

‘[Moreover], there has never been a representative survey covering the prevalence of obesity, hypertension, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption in Malta [and], therefore, the burden of this disease has been based on estimations.’

Now, the University of Malta’s Health and Wellbeing Study, SAĦĦTEK, is looking to rectify the situation and Dr Sarah Cuschieri MD, with the help of Dr Julian Mamo, the Head of the Department of Public Health, is at the helm of this ambitious project.

“When we first started, my assumptions were that we would find a small percentage of the population that was diabetic,” explains Dr Cuschieri, an assistant lecturer at the Department of Anatomy within the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery. “The actual preliminary results, however, have shown that a large percentage of the sample population is diabetic (newly diagnosed, as well as already-known), and that the majority of them are either overweight or obese, too.”diabetes-treatment-abroad

Dr Cuschieri’s role in this project is manifold, and ranges from taking care of the logistics, all the way to calling participants with abnormal results. And the results – good or bad – are what makes this project such a valuable one.

“The results have many factors that need to be analysed and compiled, which include an update of the prevalence of type 2 diabetes among adults and the prevalence of pre-diabetes (those prone to becoming diabetic), obesity, hypertension, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption, among others,” she says.

“We also assess the risk factors affecting the Maltese population that are contributing to the development of type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes and obesity, as well as the analysis of a number of diabetic genetic Single Nucleotide Polymorphism, (which is a DNA sequence variation occurring commonly within a population) within the normal, pre-diabetic and diabetic population,” she continues.

The benefits of doing all this are many, and there are several different sectors that will benefit from this project. On the one hand, participants will benefit from having their measurements taken (blood pressure, weight, etc) while also learning about their predisposition to developing diabetes and high-blood pressure.

On the other, policy makers will now know what the current situation is with regards to the frequency of diabetes type 2, pre-diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, smoking and alcohol habits among the population. Moreover, the study will also identity the risk factors that lead to these diseases, giving them an idea of how they could be managed. Indubitably, what helps the policy makers will also help take care of the nation’s health.

As a project, SAĦĦTEK has the financial backing of the Alfred Mizzi Foundation as the main sponsor; while support of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, Atlas Insurance, the Ministry for Energy and Health through the Parliamentary Secretary for Health, and the Research Trust is also notable. “RIDT has been of great help to this project,” explains Dr Cuschieri. “It not only provided substantial financial support but also helped in the initial PR of the project and launch.”

The project has commenced again in September and the team behind SAĦĦTEK will contact people living in the towns that have not yet been screened. While there’s no doubt that this project is a mammoth task, once compiled, it will prove to be extremely important for Malta’s public and private health sectors, as well as for the many who are prone to suffer from diabetes type 2. We urge all those who receive an invitation to participate and join us in understanding the health of the Maltese population.

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).Sahhtek – Health and Wellbeing Study

On The Path to Curing ALS

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In recent months and weeks, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has been sprawled all over newspapers and newsfeeds. Its symptoms are cruel, but what shocks most people is the elusiveness of this degenerative disease’s cure. Here, however, Dr Ruben Cauchi explains how hope still springs eternal in laboratories all over the world.

Dr Ruben Cauchi

When people first read about Bjorn’s heartbreaking story and how this pushed him to establish the ALS Malta Foundation, they felt sorrowful and almost a bit lost.

‘How could the body of a seemingly healthy individual turn on itself like that?’ some questioned.

‘And how has science, with all its advancements and daily discoveries, not know how to cure such a terrible and terrifying disease?’ others wondered.

Well, the long and short of it is: they’re trying. And laboratories and researchers in Malta are actually at the forefront of this race against time.

“Motor neuron diseases (MNDs) is a group of disorders in which motor neurons, or the nerve cells controlling the muscles we use to move around, breathe, speak and swallow, gradually degenerate and die. The consequences are muscle weakness and paralysis, as well as impaired speaking, swallowing and breathing, but intellect, memory or the senses remain unaffected,” explains Dr Ruben Cauchi, Senior Lecturer and Head of the MND Research Laboratory at the University of Malta’s Faculty of Medicine and Surgery.

So far, what we know about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which are the most common MNDs in adulthood and infancy, respectively, and other MNDs, is how they affect the person, but we still haven’t understood why the neuromuscular system falters.

“While there is no cure for these fatal disorders, the research activity over the past two decades has been intense,” Dr motor-neurone-imageCauchi continues. “Our research at the University of Malta is building on my previous work at the University of Oxford, where I investigated the function of the Survival Motor Neuron (SMN) gene, which is missing in children who suffer from MNDs.”

“In recent years, in my laboratory at the University of Malta, we have discovered that SMN does not act alone but works in alliance with the Gemin family of proteins to guard against damage to the motor system. These findings have been published in a number of reputable journals, too.

“Intriguingly, a flurry of studies have exposed that SMN is damaged in a wide range of MNDs, including ALS, and this,” he explains, “particularly indicates that SMN is at the heart of a shared pathway or process that goes awry in MNDs.”

All of this is believed to revolve around ribonucleic acid (RNA), which is the bridge between DNA, our hereditary material, and proteins, which are the building blocks of cells. And the researchers’ mission for the next decade is to figure out how all this comes together.

“This is a very important step in the process,” adds Dr Cauchi. “The missing pieces can serve as drug targets, which will allow us to manipulate the pathway to our advantage with the aim of halting, or at least slowing, the decline of the motor system experienced by MND sufferers. More importantly, in view of a common thread to all MNDs, we will be able to kill two, or more, birds with one stone!”

The advancements made in MNDs may not seem major to some, but in reality they are paving the way towards finally understanding – and, hopefully, curing – these diseases. Even so, the biggest difference between now and a few years ago, is that MNDs are more known about by the people on the street, and that is giving researchers the drive to continue working on it.

Bjorn Formosa

“Bjorn’s dedication to the cause and his belief that research has the key to eradicate MNDs has generated a general enthusiasm in the laboratory, and that has continued fuelling our research,” says Dr Ruben.

“The partnership between the University of Malta Research Trust (RIDT) and the ALS Malta Foundation, with the aim of raising funds for MND research, is also a breath of fresh air for our research team since, in recent years, we have been struggling to fund our MND research programme.

“Unfortunately, given that MNDs are not common, they haven’t been given their due importance, but our aim now is to use these precious funds to enthuse Masters and PhD students to join our fight against one of the most catastrophic of human disorders. Furthermore, we will probably be in a better position to pursue collaborative ventures with premier European research institutes,” he concludes.

As RIDT, we are extremely excited to be a part of this awareness-building campaign and the fund-collecting effort – and all that’s been achieved so far is also thank to funds from people who continue to believe in Malta’s own researchers.

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).

De Soldanis Goes Mass Market

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Written 248 years ago, De Soldanis’s Manuscript is not just a Maltese-to-Latin-to-Italian dictionary, but the immortalisation of the world in which Canon De Soldanis lived. Here, Olvin Vella, assistant lecturer at the Department of Maltese at the University of Malta, gives us insight into De Soldanis’s world, as well as into the ongoing work that will make this rare and unique manuscript available to the public.

Olvin Vella RIDT 2015 269Can you imagine what life was like in the Year of Our Lord 1767? Well, for starters, there was no modern technology, as industrialisation was still in its infancy. People were very superstitious, and religious references and icons would have been omnipresent. More than that, our collective knowledge was still very limited – in fact, we didn’t even have a map of the eastern coast of Australia yet.

The most surprising thing, however, is how little we’d have cared for any of the above. Without social media and with widespread illiteracy, life for many revolved around their parish and livestock, with a rare trip to the capital being the only way of escaping the daily grind for a few hours.

Gian Piet Agius de Soldanis was different, though, and, in a world in which illiteracy reigned, he had mastered the pen; and in a world in which most people never traveled far from home, he left our shores for years at a time. All this is made even more awe-inspiring by the fact that De Soldanis was a Canon from, and who lived in, Gozo – which was far less connected to the outside world than it is now.

“The man was brilliant,” says Olvin, who, as assistant lecturer at the Department of Maltese at the University of image003Malta, has been overseeing Rosabel Carabot and Joanne Trevisan on their mission to publish the De Soldanis Manuscript. “Yet, throughout his life, he always felt like he was surrounded by farmers and hunters.

“That’s why, whenever he went abroad, he felt like he was being set free,” he continues. “In one instance in the manuscript, we discover that he went on a grand tour for two years to travel around Italy and France – this is something very few Maltese and, indeed, Gozitans, at the time could boast about.

“While there, De Soldanis met many interesting people and spent time in some of Europe’s most buzzing cultural centres, too. This, undoubtedly, helped shape his unique pen and sense of humour.”

De Soldanis’s manuscript, in fact – although, technically, a dictionary of now-old Maltese words – is actually more of a journal and a lexicon of a language that was changing and evolving incredibly quickly.

At the point in time which De Soldanis was writing his magnum opus, Malta was still under the rule of the Knights of St John – it would be another 31 years before the French would invade Malta, and another 33 before the British would be called in. This, as one can imagine, means that this dictionary gives us an insight into the words that were used then and, coupled with de Soldanis’s comments and notes, opens a door to a world rarely seen in history books – that of the lower classes.

“Through this book we know that ‘gverti’ (throws) made out of sheep’s wool were exported to the continent, and that the sacramental bread was called either ‘ostja’ or ‘xawwata’ – the latter being the same name used for a ‘ftira’.

“Even more interesting is that we know that they had two words for the verb ‘to wash’, for example. These were ‘jixxalakwa’ from the Italian ‘risciacquare’ and ‘jahsel’ from Arabic. We also know that a peacock, which today we’d call ‘pagun’, was then called a ‘taus’ but translated to Italian as ‘pagone’.”

De Soldanis Open DammaDe Soldanis goes even further than that, however, and explains how an ‘ghawwiem’ (a swimmer) is someone who swims, and that women from Isla were as good at swimming as the men. L-Imnarja, on the other hand, is not just the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, but a day on which people go out to get drunk and go to church. The reader is also told about Favray’s painting of the Mnarja, and that the feast is celebrated in Nadur, Gozo.

 “It is this unparalleled insight into the world of 250 years ago that was worth all the work that Rosabelle Carabot and Joanne Trevisan have gone through,” Olvin explains. “For hundreds of years, this book has been locked up in the National Library, with very few people actually leafing through its pages.

“Now, through its digitisation, the book will be able to be printed and used by scholars, historians and even those who are interested in learning more about the way our ancestors thought and lived,” he adds.

The project to create a mass-market copy of De Soldanis’s monumental manuscript has been in the works for over six years, and it is expected to go on sale in 2016.

“A special thank you should also go to the National Library, which allowed us to use digital versions of the document to facilitate our work. And, obviously, RIDT and Wilfred Kenely, for their constant support,” Olvin image002concludes.

The book, which will be around 1,000 pages long, has been funded by BPC International Ltd through RIDT, l-Akkademja tal-Malti, il-Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ilsien Malti and Heritage Malta. The transcriptions are by Rosabelle Carabot and Joanne Trevisan, with the former also in charge of editing and revision. Daniel Cilia has been entrusted with the design and publication.

De Soldanis’s manuscript will be available for pre-order at this year’s Book Fair in November.

The Biobank – One of Malta’s Best Kept Secrets

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Since 1989, every child born in Malta has been tested for hereditary haemoglobin disorders in a project conducted jointly by the University of Malta and the Malta Health Department. Over time, and with the support of the Research Ethics Committee of the University, these samples gave rise to the Malta Biobank, a unique repository of samples and data. These are essential to understanding the genetics of the population of Malta and the causes of rare hereditary disease. Here, Joanna Vella, a Biobank Assistant, gives us a tour of the why and the how of this unique research facility.

joanne vellaDeep beneath the Biomedical Sciences Building on the campus of the University of Malta are two rooms guarded with alarms and locks. They are climate-controlled, and every measure – from extinguishers in case of a fire to intruder alarms – has been taken to ensure their security and safekeeping.

Together, these two rooms form Malta’s Biobank: a living catalogue of many samples of blood and DNA of people afflicted with various illnesses and conditions, including (type 2) Diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and Thalassaemia.

“The bank is made up of two arms,” explains Joanna Vella, who works alongside Professor Alex Felice, the founder and director of the Biobank.

“One part of it is the Population Biobank, which holds 30,000 samples of DNA from children born in Malta over the past 26 years; while the other, the Clinical Biobank, holds various collections of blood and DNA (totalling to 11,000 samples) of people who were diagnosed with particular illnesses.”

On the one hand, the Population Biobank is an exercise in collecting Maltese and Gozitan DNA, which can then be used by researchers in Malta and abroad to help them with any medical investigations they may embark on; “subject, of course, to informed consent,” she adds. They are also exploring the possibility of a ‘research co-operative’ of subjects who are willing to share samples and data in support of health research. This would help both Malta’s researchers and foreign ones; after all, there are important leads on the genetics of diabetes right here in Malta.

“As part of the National Thalassaemia Programme, when a child is born a cord blood sample is kept and tested for herditary haemoglobin diseases,” explains Joanna. “If anything is found, then the parents are notified and medical action is taken as necessary. If nothing is found, then that child’s blood becomes anonymised and is placed in the Biobank to create a catalogue of the Maltese population’s DNA.”

This process is one that has helped many families determine biobank sampleschronic or underlying diseases early on. In fact, the PhD research of Dr Joseph Borg, which led him to discover the KLF1 gene has its roots in the National Thalassaemia Programme.

This project, in fact, began when a family with persistent foetal haemoglobin was met in the Thalassaemia Clinic and followed up by Professor Felice’s research group, which Dr Borg had just joined as a graduate student and research assistant.

“The Clinical Bank, on the other hand, is a collection of blood gathered through particular research, and the samples Dr Borg collected are now stored here too, for example,” says Joanna.

In order to have a detailed account of the various samples of DNA available at the Clinical Bank, Joanna, along with the Director Professor Felice and other helpers, spent six months sorting it out.

“Each researcher had his own collection and, unless we knew what they had been researching, we had to figure out what the DNA had been used for,” explains Joanna. “Now we have a lab that is both diagnostic- and research-oriented, and have samples of people who suffer from coeliac disease and retinoblastoma, among others. This allows us and other researchers to determine causes, patterns and even cures for these diseases.”

Malta’s Biobank does not stand alone in its work, however, and it is now a partner in various international biobank networks.

“We have been part of the EuroBioBank since 2002. In fact, Malta was one of the founding members and partners of particular research that is taking place on rare diseases known as RD-Connect, an FP7 project that is now in its third year and delivers essential IT tools with standards of quality practice in biobanking.

“We are also partners in BBMRI-ERIC, which stands for Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure – the European Research Infrastructure Consortium,” she adds. “This is of particular importance to us as it is the biggest research infrastructure in the European Union and focuses on more common diseases, like cancer and diabetes.


“What this means is that we’re automatically involved in many projects and our work and our researchers’ work is visible. More than that, however, it means that our researchers have the possibility to use samples of DNA from other countries to help them in their research. Ultimately, that benefits everyone involved, including current and future generations of Maltese people,” Joanna concludes.

You can be a part of this fascinating world of research by helping many other researchers achieve their breakthroughs in all faculties at the University of Malta, including medicine, archaeology and technology. We also urge you to become an active participant in health research when asked. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).

The KLF1 Gene – A Maltese Discovery

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Dr Joseph Borg

What is genetic behaviour? And how does understanding its workings help researchers find cures for diseases? Here we chat to Dr Joseph Borg, the man who first discovered the existence of important DNA mutations in the KLF1 Gene.

Most of us have a basic understanding of what DNA is and how it affects our biology. What most of us may not know, however, is just how powerful its influence can be in terms of diseases.

Over the years, in fact, researchers have discovered that not only does DNA determine our eye colour and height, but it is also coded in a way that can predispose us to many ailments, including various kinds of cancer, complex disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease and Diabetes Mellitus Type 2) and classic disorders (such as thalassaemia and cystic fibrosis).

But DNA is not just something you’re born with; it’s something that changes as you grow older and according to the environment you’re exposed to.DNA

“A very important influence on DNA is where you live, what you eat, where you work and even epigenetics (how different environmental influences affect DNA),” explains Dr Joseph Borg, an academic lecturer for the Department of Applied Biomedical Science within the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Malta.

“Some genetic disorders, such as thalassaemia, haemophilia and cystic fibrosis, you’re born with, while others, like diabetes, dementia or Alzheimer’s, you develop as a result of the environment you live in and other predisposing factors that includes genetics,” he adds.

Joseph first became interested in genetic behaviour while reading for his B.Sc(Hons) degree at the University of Malta, and, although he graduated in 2004, he has remained active in this field of research.

“There are five main areas in biomedical science research,” he explains. “Haematology (the study of blood and blood-related diseases), histopathology (the study of tumour and cancer biology), microbiology, biochemistry, and blood transfusion science and immunology, which often go hand-in-hand.

“I found all this incredibly fascinating; so much so that my B.Sc thesis was on the genetics of coeliac disease in Malta. But I have to admit that I got more than I had bargained for in my undergraduate work…

behavior-genetic-basis-of-3887“Besides working in the laboratory to conduct genetic testing, I was also introduced to clinical research dealing in and discussing what I was researching with certain recruited participants for the project.

“It turned out well, however, and I continued using that model throughout my Masters and PhD,” he explains. “In total, the research took six years, and it was at the end of that period that I discovered a genetic mutation that had been previously unknown.”

The Krüppel-like factor, or as it is more commonly known, the KLF1 gene, was discovered through DNA sequencing, which is when the DNA is stripped down to single, molecular level.

“It was all rather coincidental, really,” Joseph explains. “Every child born is tested for abnormal haemoglobins (the red proteins responsible for transporting oxygen through the blood), and, when we identified a mother and her newborn with abnormally high levels of foetal haemoglobin, we decided to test her immediate family.

“Through that we discovered that in an extended family of 27 members, 10 of this woman’s kin had the same abnormally high levels of foetal haemoglobin, and further research revealed that the gene that codes the haemoglobin molecule in the foetal haemoglobin (which is usually switched off at birth) was still on and intact!”

This was a eureka-moment for Joseph, and it has since paved the way for further research into how certain diseases could be cured in the future. Internationally it was also a turning point and researchers as far away as in Australia and Asia are now building on what Joseph had initially discovered about the KLF1 gene.

“Presently, we’ve identified some different mutations and the ways in which these control the functions of the hemoglobinhaemoglobins,” says Joseph. “So far, we’ve discovered that these genes may not always affect haemoglobins as it was first assumed.

“Now we’re actively studying that, and we’ve realised that the KLF1 gene is not the sole gene that controls this haemoglobin switch, so we’re looking for the other genes and tandems which may be having a similar impact. Even so, this will take time, and we’re at a point where we’re sifting through many gigabytes-worth of data.”

But how does this affect the general public?

 “Each person’s DNA is unique, and that means that we respond differently to things,” Joseph explains. “Personalised medicine and treatment is the future of medicine and it is only through the research of the genes in DNA that we can truly boost pharmacogenetics (the study of how inherited genetics can affect the way our bodies react to drugs and medicine) and make strides forward on this front.”

You can be part of this fascinating world of research, by helping many other researchers achieve their breakthroughs in all faculties at 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).

The Mobile Dental Clinic – Behind the Scenes

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The University of Malta’s RIDT-funded mobile dental clinic will be hitting the roads in just a few weeks time. To celebrate this milestone, we spoke to Albert Bonnici, the engineer who has turned a regular truck into a state-of-the-art dental centre.

RIDT +ö+ç+¦ Mobile Dental Unit progress +ö+ç+¦ visit by UOM Rector 2404150004

Can you imagine life without teeth? How would we chew our food? What would we look like when we smiled?

Yes, teeth are incredibly important, but many of us take them for granted and, unless we have a toothache, we often neglect to visit the dentist. How widespread is this attitude? How much do we care about our oral health?

To address this, Malta’s first-ever mobile dental clinic will – soon – start its journey through the streets of Malta, visiting not only those who are unable to leave their homes, but also schools and community centres. Its on-board specialists will give advice, perform check-ups and emergency procedures on the spot, while gathering crucial data and disseminating related information.

But who built this fantastic vehicle, and what did it involve?

Engineer Albert Bonnici

This is the story of engineer Albert Bonnici, in his own words:

“I was approached about this project after Professor Nikolai Attard, the Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery, explained his brilliant idea of getting the Maltese community together (with the help some of sponsors) to promote dental health,” says Albert. “This inspired me, and I started thinking about the ways I could help bring the project to fruition.

“The first step was to get the best base unit available,” he explains. “I ended up with a very suitable DAF 45 LF cargo truck that had a 6m x 2.4m working space and a hydraulic tail lift.

“Obviously, the medical functions were my number one priority, but mobility, ergonomics, eco friendliness and, last but not least, radiation, and health and safety standards also had to be given their due importance from the initial stages.

“Designing the basic interior layout was left to the Faculty of Dentistry, while I did the rest, which included sizing, selecting and fitting the equipment and services, both on the inside and the outside the truck,” he continues.

DSCF5799“These included electrical power circuits and pipework for compressed air, vacuuming, hot and cold water, and drains,” he explains. “A hydraulic vehicle stabiliser unit also had to be installed under the chassis, while water tanks, pumps and an air conditioner were fitted to the sides.

“Then came the interior design stage,” he tells us excitedly. “Thermal insulation, cabin structure, panelling, flooring and furniture are just a few of the tasks that had to be completed before the medical equipment could be installed.

“The actual work started late in the summer of 2014, though planning had to be done quite some time before that date,” he continues. “At the moment, the project is at an advanced stage with the important finishing touches to complete, including related exterior artwork to suit.

“It wasn’t all a breeze, however” Albert says. “Financing was quite an issue at first, though, thanks to a number of sponsors, we reached our goals.

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“Even so, the biggest issue was allocating time on my part… Working single-handedly for most of it meant I spent about one day per week on this project, and this resulted in certain tasks taking longer than expected.

“I have to admit, however, that although each minor job came with some sort of satisfaction, the cherry on the cake was the interior décor! It’s not my forte, granted, but switching on the LED soffit lights once most of the interiors were finished revealed a five-star clinic that, in my humble opinion, looks great!” Albert concludes.

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