Kidney Stakes

A small team of scientists at the University of Malta is trying to determine what causes children to be born with serious kidney defects. Laura Bonnici speaks to Prof. Alex Felice, Dr Valerie Said Conti, Esther Zammit, and Alan Curry to find out more about this ground-breaking programme.

‘I’d sell a kidney for that!’ Most of us have been guilty of using this expression when faced with something desirable. But do we fully appreciate the real value of what we are offering before the words escape our lips?

Kidneys are our body’s official waste disposal system, filtering out toxic build-up from our blood, which can poison us if left unchecked. With kidney failure posing such a threat, renal research has become an ongoing global goal.

A team of scientists from the University of Malta is currently honing in on what may cause children to be born with ‘CAKUT’, or Congenital Anomalies of the Kidney and Urinary Tract.

With between three and six cases recorded per 1000 live births worldwide, CAKUT is the most common cause of end-stage kidney disease in children. Since early identification of these anomalies may reduce kidney damage later in life, the LifeCycle Malta Foundation has raised funds for a renal research programme which targets CAKUT and its causes.

‘We know that a number of children are born with a kidney defect, but in many cases, we are not sure why,’ explains the programme’s principal investigator, Dr Valerie Said Conti . ‘There are many factors that can affect the development of the kidney, both genetic and environmental. We are trying to understand those influences so that we can carry out preventative strategies, diagnose issues earlier, and target personal therapeutic interventions.’

A number of children are born with a kidney defect, but in many cases, we are not sure why.

For this team of renal researchers, the first three years of initial research has been the first step in a far longer journey. ‘We hope to contribute our data to the international literature pool,’ continues Prof. Alex Felice, consultant and supervisor on the programme. ‘We will need a massive amount of data to create a robust theory with which to progress. We hope that our findings regarding CAKUT will be useful when we come to the stage of creating new interventions.’

It’s an end-game that has kept the small team focused as they approach the programme’s expected completion date this year. Having had to start literally from scratch, they collected biological samples from patients with a range of kidney diseases, including CAKUT, nephrotic syndrome, and Bartter syndrome. This allowed them to build the renal disease collection at the Malta BioBank, a vital storehouse for scientists.

‘For research projects like this, you see what material is available and you work with it,’ explains Said Conti . ‘A big part of it so far has been sourcing the samples from families attending the clinic with their formal consent for the material to be used in this project. We are hugely grateful to those who accepted to take part in the research. Without them, it would have been impossible.’

This project has set the groundwork for renal research in Malta to continue. ‘Without funding, projects such as this one simply could not exist,’ Said Conti remarks of the €100,000 donation LifeCycle Malta Foundation made to RIDT. ‘It enabled us to employ a full-ti me Research Support Officer, involve other laboratories, attend international meetings to share insights, perform ultrasound tests, and invest in ‘Next Generation DNA Sequencing’, genetic technology that maps out genes, revolutionising our world.’ But there is much more to come.

The Founder of the LifeCycle Malta Foundation, Personal Fitness Consultant Alan Curry, agrees. ‘Renal failure is an ever-increasing problem with figures going up every year, and LifeCycle is the only NGO that is actively supporting renal patients and their families in Malta. Our annual LifeCycle Challenge, which this year is routed from Dubai to Oman, aims to raise €150,000. It’s a huge responsibility, but we are sure that, by funding research programmes such as this, we will significantly improve the lives of kidney patients.’

  Author: Laura Bonnici

Sewage works

Water is our number one resource. It not only sustains life, but also supports the economy and its development. And yet, water is taken for granted. Kirsty Callan talks to Marco Cremona, the man behind the revolutionary water treatment solution that promised to reduce Maltese hotels’ water use by 85%.

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Urban Utopia

Valletta is living proof that major cultural and artistic events can breathe new life into the city. When Malta’s capital was granted the title of European Capital of Culture for 2018, all hands were on deck to prune and preen, reversing decades of decay to make it ‘worthy’ of such a prestigious title. Now, after years of intense effort, the hard work has paid off. City Gate now provides an appropriately magnificent entryway into Valletta. Dingy, long-shuttered venues have been restored and reinvigorated. The once sleepy city has roared back to life with the wealth of events being organised. Valletta is no longer a stop on the hop-on hop-off bus; it is a bustling melting pot of old and new with an inescapable siren song.

This shift has created positive momentum in the arts scene. But not all outcomes have been positive. Valletta’s overhaul can look very different for the ones who call the city home. The burst of activities may have disrupted some people’s day-to-day business, while also contributing to the congestion and noise. The solution is in identifying ways to effectively balance the discomfort brought about by social change and the valued benefits that same change brings.

Jaakko Blomberg

Finnish social activist, Jaakko Blomberg knows the struggle. He founded the NGO Yhteismaa (Common Ground) in Helsinki in 2012. Yhteismaa specializes in new participatory city culture, co-creation, and social movements. ‘In the beginning, many municipal officers in Helsinki were against our events and projects; they just didn’t have any procedure for handling them, so we kind of had to find a new way to do things.’ Leaving room for people to share their ideas and expressing themselves is also essential, he says. ‘There should be different kinds of roles and tasks for people to take on; all changes are scary, so it’s important to inform people and make them feel like they’re part of the process. For example, many people are prejudiced against street art, but when you explain more about it and give people the chance to take part in the process, their attitude becomes much more positive. Organisers have to provide enough information and make participation easy. It’s important that it’s not just about a small circle of activists, but about the whole community.’

Residents often felt ‘helpless and disowned of their spaces.

Victor Jacono

Closer to home, project leader of the Ġewwa Barra initiative, Victor Jacono, tells us how Valletta residents often felt ‘helpless and disowned of their spaces.’ Ġewwa Barra was created to address precisely that issue: to empower residents and give them ownership of their community, using artistic tools to get a glimpse at the cultures affecting their lives and help them express the needs and dreams that shape their experience in the capital city.

‘We seek to encourage creativity, but also responsibility. We hold creative workshops conducted by different facilitators and artists to give people the chance to look at themselves through the aesthetic lens of the artworks. Currently we are engaging the residents of Duwi Balli in a process of creative place regeneration, through a collaboration between architects Maria Cerreta and Franco Lancio, the Valletta Local Council, and the Valletta Services Directorate. It is not simply a matter of approaching the residents and asking them what nice things they would like us to do for them. It is a matter of asking them what they wish to express with our support, of providing them with tools and opportunities to respond creatively to the changes affecting their lived spaces,’ Victor says. In 2017 and 2018 Ġewwa Barra is going to extend its reach even further in order to involve residents from across the capital city, with different artists conducting a series of creative workshops that will culminate in an exceptional performing arts event.

Ġewwa Barra was created to […] empower residents and give them ownership of their community, using artistic tools to get a glimpse at the cultures affecting their lives and help them express the needs and dreams that shape their experience in the capital city.

While Victor is realistic about the forward march of change, he believes it is unjust and unacceptable that changes are engineered by a handful of stakeholders, whose decisions everyone else simply has to accept— especially when such changes are going to affect Valletta’s residents’ lives dramatically. Much like Jaakko with Yhteismaa, he believes that the fear of change can be lessened if people are informed and included in the process. ‘The voices of those stakeholders with lesser means need to be amplified and given the importance they deserve. The arts can contribute greatly towards this. Ġewwa Barra is not so much about single events, but the mainly bottom-up processes engaging the residents creatively. I believe it is the experiences brought about by such processes that will leave an important and long-lasting legacy with the inhabitants of Valletta.’

Jaakko Blomberg and Victor Jacono are keynote speakers at the Valletta 2018 conference titled Living Cities, Liveable Spaces: Placemaking & Identity. More information on this conference can be accessed at Registration ends on 12th November. Discounted rates are available for students. 



Where is the crowd?

Athletes who are cheered on during sporting activities are likely to perform better than athletes who don’t. The HeartLink project is investigating how to remotely cheer athletes while they are participating in sporting events. Dr Franco Curmi writes about his work for the HeartLink project.

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A Good Cause for Research

Mario Cachia

Why should public, private, and non-profit entities invest in research? Several reasons exist.

Firstly, research is key for our future. Research helps drive new knowledge that will improve the world. Society depends on research, across a wide range of disciplines, to strengthen our quality of life and sustain economic stability. By raising funds for University research the RIDT is surely not trying to reinvent the wheel. On the contrary, throughout Europe, the US and Asia public universities are enhancing their Government funding through various initiatives to sustain important research. Universities all across the globe appeal to public entities, private individuals and NGOs to fund research and invest in our society’s future.

Locally, we have just started scraping the surface of fundraising for research. Recently, the RIDT received a number of important donations which shall serve to continue fostering local research. In the first of its kind, we received €55,000 from local NGO ‘Action for Breast Cancer Foundation’ (ABCF), raised through the ALIVE Cycling Challenge. They are being used to launch a Ph.D. studentship in breast cancer research. The Lifecycle Foundation has also donated €70,000 towards kidney disease research. These NGOs have followed a stream of public and private entities, as well as students, who have been donating money for research for the last three years.

Secondly, don’t you want to be part of something bigger? You probably cannot find the cure for cancer yourself, but everyone can contribute to make that a possibility. As the University’s Research Trust, we do not only want to attract big corporate companies or NGOs to donate money, but we also want you — the students, the alumni, the professionals, the workers, the parents, to realise that donating for research is a noble cause. A recent Christmas campaign at the University of Malta that was spearheaded by KSU, the UoM staff and the Chaplaincy managed to raise €12,000 from students, staff, and academics on campus. A third of these funds were donated to the RIDT, which were devolved to the Department of Anatomy. They will be invested in specialised research projects focusing on specific strands of cancer, such as leukaemias, sarcomas, brain tumours, breast and colon cancer.

Research affects our day-to-day lives. Though research discoveries take time and need constant investment to benefit our society, we can come together as a Maltese community by investing in research for good causes. Ultimately, let us imagine a world where we have cured all major diseases, where we can move objects with our thoughts, and unravel the mysteries of the universe.Imagine, and let’s make it happen!


RIDT is the University’s Research Trust aimed towards fostering awareness and fundraising for high-calibre local research. We aim to achieve this by raising funds for various research projects undertaken at the University of Malta. Please visit to donate and our Facebook page on for more information about our latest events and initiatives.