The first rule of Crowdfight: Collaborate
The first ever Crowdfight Symposium will be taking place on 15th June. The symposium will look at the incentives inherent in the academic system, such as authorship in publications, and how these motivate academics. Crowdfight seeks to address how these incentives might be improved to further promote collaboration.Continue reading
Big Science in Little Malta
University of Malta shines in Stanford Study. Seven academics from the University of Malta are ranked in the top 2% scientists in the world — quite an impressive feat for a small university!Continue reading
Our editor-in-chief’s favourite THINK stories of all time!
The festive season is a time for family, friendship, and remembrance. Over the last nine years, I’ve seen THINK magazine being born, grow up, and mature. First as its life giver, then as its pilot, my job has been to make sure the ship doesn’t stray too far off course while allowing the excellent editors Cassi Camilleri, Daiva Repečkaitė, and David Mizzi to bring their own flavours and thoughts to the magazine.
The journey has been long — full of hurdles and rewards. Some academics did not agree with the approach: ‘THINK turns researchers into superstars,’ blurted one researcher, making that seem like an awful thing. Other researchers couldn’t understand why we wanted to talk about their failures. Experiments don’t always work, and we wanted to show the passion researchers need in order to contribute to human knowledge through publications. Meanwhile, other people loved how much time we dedicated to design and how easy the magazine was to read, proud that the University of Malta could produce such a high quality publication on a shoe-string budget.
The year’s end has made me reflect on all the stories we have covered, from articles that affected every Maltese resident to research stories that rewrote Maltese history. It has been a great ride. Below are some of my favourites. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed working on them with the excellent THINK team.
Stories that bring to light vital issues
Research sometimes brings shocking things to light. Imagine If one-third of the world’s shipping traffic passed by your door, and every ship burnt heavy fuel oil equivalent to a medium-sized power station. Prof. Ray Ellul and his team discovered that these fumes were causing pollution peaks in Malta, which also has high levels of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Writing about this story showed me how important it was that THINK’s dedicated team was trying to find out what research was happening in Malta. We were the first to write about this research. Our story was picked up by issuu.com, gaining over a million hits through their platform. The story hit a nerve both in Malta and abroad.
Malta’s pollution problem is partly due to shipping, but also stems from traffic: fossil-fuel burning vehicles are Malta’s largest contributor. To this day, neither has been addressed. Lung conditions are still rampant.
We followed up the story in 2017 and again in 2020.
Other research shows how history tells many stories. History is not made up of one narrative but of many competing ones. The final story is written by the victor. Back in 1798, Malta was invaded by the French, but recent research by Dr Charles Xuereb adds nuance to the story Maltese children have been taught in school. The story was that the French were hated, stole all our silver, and treated the Maltese very badly. Xuereb found out that many Maltese people and the then-rulers, the Order of the Knights of St John (many of whom were French), had practically invited the French to Malta. Napoleon tried to bring his values of free education and health to Malta, but that didn’t last long as it upset the merchant class and church — two powerful forces that didn’t benefit from Napoleonic rule.
But this isn’t what surprised me the most from Xuereb’s research. Around 10,000 Maltese people died in the ensuing two-year siege by the Maltese people in rural Malta supported by the British, against those locked up in the Three Cities and the Valletta/Floriana area bolstered by the French. What’s shocking is that this event is not remembered in our history books or monuments. The British rulers who came after the French didn’t want the Maltese people to think they could overthrow a colonial power, so they emphasised the British help and reduced the role of Maltese residents in this bloody two-year war.
For more, do read MALTA | Stockholm Syndrome: or why we love the British. If you’d like to read about other rewrites of Maltese history, see 1565 – Was it that great?
Stories that touch people’s hearts
Research changes lives. Dementia affects over 6,000 people in Malta. Cassi Camilleri wrote I’m sorry I forgot: Is dementia Malta’s next national crisis? Her story interwove Malta’s National Dementia Strategy publication with the sad story of Briton Geoffrey Morgan, who went missing and died because of his condition. His family opened up about their experience, showing just how important it is to invest in research on how to treat dementia, but also how to care for patients and their carers and families, who are normally overlooked.
A few years later dementia treatment in Malta received another boost: dance. The Step Up For Parkinson’s Voluntary Organisation started working with dementia patients and carers in Malta. THINK worked with them to produce Dancing with Parkinson’s: A short documentary and an article by Dawn Giles about the lives of people changed by this movement. Research by the organisation’s founder Nathalie Muschamp showed the impact the organisation’s work has on people’s lives. We recently followed up on this story in Caring for Carers, where we take a look at these unsung heroes.
Tackling the problem of gender
THINK hasn’t shied away from difficult issues. Our March 2020 issue focused on gender boundaries. THINK investigated how women are still held back in journalism, medical research, STEM careers, and even climate change. The issues are both Maltese and present the world over. I really loved how we celebrated the women who made it despite the glass ceilings. Read Making it in a male-dominated world to learn more about the three researchers we covered.
One article that is close to my heart is on the need to normalise the issue of gender. Rather than simply shrugging off the problem, the issue needs to be tackled head on. Dr Brenda Murphy spoke about Mainstream gender = mainstream funding. By focusing on gender and including more LGBTIQ+ community members in research, research quality will improve. I have spent tens of hours writing research grants to try and make this happen in Malta — the search goes on.
THINK has been an incredible life journey for me. Creating a magazine that speaks about Maltese research has been a dream come true. I had the idea while I was still living in Edinburgh, but the concept was a shared one, and many others pushed to start such a publication in Malta. That it is still going strong, with plans to make it even stronger under the helm of Editor David Mizzi, is the best Christmas present I could have received.
I want Maltese research to be known locally and worldwide. I want locals and politicians to talk to researchers and to make the best decisions for the country by balancing facts with public need. These wishes sound like pipe dreams, but let’s hope Santa is listening.
I <3 potato
Plant-based diets are going mainstream all over the world. Cassi Camilleri sheds light on the local vegan movement and how reducing our meat consumption can benefit us all.
Some label the rise of plant-based living as evidence of ‘trend culture’. And they’re not all wrong. Traditional media bombards us with countless headlines on the topic’s pros and cons. Hard-hitting advocacy films like Cowspiracy and Forks over Knives expose the horrors of the meat industry. Social media influencers share their experiences with the diet, turning it into lifestyle content. And now the market is following suit with vegan and veggie lines and options popping up everywhere.
In 2016, an Ipsos MORI survey for the Vegan Society identified that 3.25% of adults in the UK never eat meat in any form as part of their diet, equating to roughly 540,000 people. Vegan January—commonly known as Veganuary—is growing in popularity. This year, a record-breaking 250,310 people from 190 countries registered for the month-long vegan pledge. And Malta is no exception.
While the official number of people following a plant-based or vegan diet are unavailable, interest is clear. Facebook pages Vegan Malta and Vegan Malta Eats have a combined following of over 16,500 people.
The reasons behind people’s decision to take up veganism are various, however three main motivators keep being cited: health benefits, ethics, and environmental concerns. For vegan business woman Rebecca Camilleri the process was natural and gradual. ‘There was no real intention behind it for me. But after a couple of months of following this diet, I noticed that my energy levels were better than before, and this encouraged me to learn more on how I needed to eat in order to nourish my body with the right nutrients to sustain my active lifestyle.’
Researcher and nutritionist Prof. Suzanne Piscopo (Department of Health, Physical Education, and Consumer Studies, University of Malta) confirms that ‘moving towards a primarily plant-based diet is recommended by organisations such as the World Health Organization and the World Cancer Research Fund, for health and climate change reasons.’
Oxford academic Dr Marco Springmann has attempted to model what a vegan planet would look like, and the results are staggering. According to his calculations, should the world’s population switch to a vegan diet by the year 2050, the global economy would save $1.1 trillion in healthcare costs. We would also save $0.5 trillion in environmental costs, all while slashing greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds.
Despite all this, veganism has earned itself quite a few enemies along the way. The vitriol thrown back and forth across both camps is shocking. Relatively recently, UK supermarket chain Waitrose came under scrutiny after magazine editor William Sitwell responded to plant-based food article ideas from writer Selene Nelson with a dark counter offer—a series on ‘killing vegans’. Sitwell was since forced to resign. Nelson posited that the hostility stems from ‘a refusal to recognise the suffering of animals. Mocking vegans is easier than listening to them.’
Abigail Higgins from American news and opinion website Vox agrees that guilt plays a role in the hatred aimed towards veganism, but also proposes that the whole movement ‘represents a threat to the status quo, and cultural changes make people anxious.’ This notion is based on research on intergroup threats and attitudes by US researchers Walter G. Stephan and Cookie White Stephan.
It however remains a reality that some of the loudest voices in veganism in the past have been militant. Some have invoked hatred and threats towards those that they perceive not to be sufficiently aggressive in promoting the cause. Piscopo calls for a respectful discussion.
‘Food is not only about sustenance and pleasure, but has symbolic, emotional, and identity value. Take meat for example. Some associate it with masculinity and virility. Others link it to food security as meat was a food which was scarce during their childhood. Some others equate it with conviviality as meat dishes are often consumed during happy family occasions. What is important is that we do not try to impose our beliefs, thoughts, and lifestyle on anyone.’
The way forward is a ‘live and let live’ approach, according to Rebecca Galea. When her journey started she had people ‘staring strangely at [her] food’. Even her family didn’t take her seriously. ‘They were very sceptical as their knowledge on veganism was very limited at the time,’ she remembers. Now, seeing the effect the switch has made to Rebecca’s life, her positive choices are naturally impacting theirs. ‘Everyone is free to make their choice,’ she says. Embodying the philosophy of leading by example, Rebecca has even set up her own business making delicious vegan nut butters, spreads, and more, to great success. ‘The more vegan options are available [in Malta], the more people will be attracted to learning and accepting the benefits of veganism. This might also lead to them following a vegan lifestyle!’
With that, and sharing valid, up-to-date research-based information, as Piscopo suggests, it seems there is no stopping this ‘trend’. And who would want to when veganism can lead to a lower carbon footprint and better health for everyone?
Putting patients first
Most cancer treatments involve complex surgeries, toxic drugs, or taxing radiation, but there are other answers to this devastating disease. Prof. Pierre Schembri-Wismayer is developing a vaccine that works by harnessing our body’s own immune response and directing it towards the threat, fighting the disease as an inside job. Words by Gail Sant.
Our bodies produce billions of cells every day. With such industrial production rates, it’s entirely likely that a mistake or two are made along the way. Cancer cells are those mistakes—faulty mutants.
Humans are also equipped with mechanisms that allow them to recognise cancer cells and get rid of them, but there can be trouble when distinguishing ‘bad’ from ‘good’. Part and parcel of cancer is that it compromises the immune system to ‘escape’ our ‘guards’. This precious time during which the body fails to recognise the mutants is the golden opportunity for cancer cells to multiply and thrive. And as the cancer grows, so do the problems that come with it.
Despite the varied types of cancers in existence, treatment usually entails surgery and chemotherapy. But the risks and side-effects that come with them are heart-wrenching.
But what if a vaccine can stop cancer in its tracks? Prof. Pierre Schembri-Wismayer and his team are working on a type of immunotherapy that enables the body to recognise the invading cancer sooner, directing the attack as a result.
How it works
Vaccines work by triggering an immune response in the body. These cancer vaccines developed by Schembri-Wismayer work the same way. He collects a piece of the cancerous tumour and denatures (a process not unlike cooking or boiling) it in formalin, which modifies its shape, making it easier for the body to recognise as a foreign body. The body can then remove it.
Our bodies have a naturally low tolerance when it comes to foreign entities, so when a vaccine injects the cooked tumour, the body recognises it and ambushes both the injected and the original cancer present in the patient, ‘engendering a stronger immune response’.
Inspired by a Japanese research paper, yet baffled by its lack of recognition, Schembri Wismayer modified the method outlined there and created his own version of the vaccine to accommodate his first patients: a pair of pet rats.
The founding pets
Schembri-Wismayer had the perfect opportunity to test the potential cancer treatment when a student’s pet rats fell ill. Their owner mistakenly overfed the rats to such an extent that they became obese. ‘The rats became square-shaped,’ Schembri-Wismayer notes. With the increase in body fat, their oestrogen rose too—a female sex hormone that increases the risk of breast cancer. As a result, both rats developed the disease, and even showed metastasis in both underarms, which also happens in humans. Obesity is linked to cancer in many animals.
Within days, Schembri-Wismayer took samples from the rats and produced a tailor-made vaccine for each rat. Two weeks after their treatment, the rats’ owner informed him that they were in a lot of pain. ‘But tumours don’t hurt,’ Schembri-Wismayer explains.
An operation on the rats revealed that the tumours had broken down (were full of dead cells). This confirmed that the rats’ pain was actually stemming from the inflammation caused by the vaccine itself.
Physical anguish aside, this was a good sign, an indication that the body was fighting back. In the end, the tumours burst, necrosed, and died. The rats beat the cancer, and thus a new research project found its beginnings.
Having had such promising results, and with ethical approval from the local Animal Welfare Council as a therapeutic option, Schembri-Wismayer turned his attention to a group of animals which would benefit a lot from such vaccines—people’s pets.
‘In many cases, once a dog or a cat gets cancer, there’s not much you can do if it spreads,’ says Schembri-Wismayer. His vaccines can offer new hope to pet owners when cancer strikes and the only option is to put them down. And so it has.
With consent from owners and vets, Schembri-Wismayer offered the therapy to cats and dogs of different breeds. The types of cancer varied, as were their progressions, and so the results were just as jumbled. The treatment was successful for some, but not all. Considering this treatment is still in its early days, an element of trial-and-error puts some animals at a disadvantage, particularly those who are very ill when the disease is in its last stages. It should also be mentioned that this research project was held back by challenging communication difficulties between everyone involved. ‘Different priorities made the process more difficult than it had to be,’ Schembri-Wismayer notes. The ideal scenario would see him and the veterinarian working hand-in-hand to follow up on the animals and their response to the treatment using blood tests and ultrasound.
That said, the potential of the treatment isn’t limited to individual successes. Each pet-patient contributed to a better understanding of the treatment, especially when owners were immensely helpful and allowed the veterinary surgeon to provide the team with a piece of the tumour after treatment (even if the pet was put down). With that in mind, the prospects of this type of immunotherapy are promising to say the least.
Moving onto human trials
While the vaccine’s promising results might be a step in the right direction, the cure for cancer doesn’t seem to be in the near future. The ongoing animal treatments are providing useful information, but the move to human trials is gruelling. Testing out new therapies comes with storey-high hurdles, including financial ones, that need to be overcome.
The reality is that this kind of therapy would work best as a first response (or after debulking surgery). Because the more widespread the cancer, the bigger the immune response the vaccines create. And ‘if a reaction is strong enough, it might be enough to kill the patient,’ Schembri-Wismayer explains. But medicine works with a set of rules and best practices. Doctors are obliged to try what’s known to work first before moving onto lesser-known experimental drugs. This fact is a challenge. Despite the hurdle, Schembri-Wismayer is certain that people would eventually volunteer to be involved in clinical trials, as happened with HIV/AIDS treatments. ‘Unfortunately in end-stage cancer you have no other options.’
Vaccines for human use need to be produced in Good Medical Practice (GMP) facilities, cites Schembri-Wismayer. However, there are no such facilities locally. After a long search, he has finally found an industry partner that has agreed to create the vaccines in Belgium, against a price, as long as he sets up the clinical trials. This little victory comes with its own set of problems. In this case, the new limiting factor is mainly funding. Clinical trials typically cost millions.
The politics of Cancer
Logistics aside, the hunt for a cure faces problems even more complex than what already seems immensely problematic. Schembri-Wismayer explained that there’s a major systematic flaw.
‘Many cancer researchers are not doctors. Their career depends on peer-reviewed publications and not finding a cure.’ This means that as long as their findings are statistically significant or are ‘good enough’ to be published in a high-end scientific journal, their job is done.
Granted, no research finding can be seen as wasted knowledge. Each can be seen as a small step forward. However, Schembri-Wismayer believes that the millions of funds designated to cancer research should have more rapid deliverables that directly benefit the patients, not just academic careers. Unfortunately, the cancer research community is a circular one, where scientists review other scientists mainly based on publications to get further funding.
‘I am not trying to publish in Nature [the world’s top academic publication], I’m trying to cure cancer’, says Schembri-Wismayer as he confesses that he feels guilty about not letting his students publish papers. But this is a necessary evil in the journey towards therapies. ‘Once a method is published, no company will touch it because it’s in the public domain.’ The method would have no monetary value since anyone could copy it. Needless to say, no pharmaceutical company will industrialise a drug that doesn’t guarantee profit.
Speaking of profit, Schembri Wismayer expressed that the financial aspect of this study is one of his greatest motivations. ‘Most of these drugs cost the Earth’, he said, adding that ‘when each shot costs €30,000 and the success rates are low, very few National Health Care systems are going to provide it.’ Take Yervoy, a drug commonly used to treat melanoma; one dose can cost up to €4,000. Survival rates after treatment are low. And there are no ‘money-back-guarantees’ if the outcome is less than satisfactory. As a result, studies have shown that a quarter of cancer patients in the US choose not to take such prescriptions because of such high prices. Money shouldn’t be the limiting factor in the fight for survival. Schembri-Wismayer believes in cancer treatment that’s affordable for everyone.
Fighting the good fight
Even in the face of all these odds, Schembri-Wismayer persists. A cancer patient isn’t just a number; a cancer patient is also a mother, a brother, or a friend. And knowing this is enough to help him and thousands of other cancer researchers to continue pushing through.
One in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer during their lives. It is a harsh reality, but humankind will eventually find a cure just as it has with other previously deadly diseases such as influenza or measles. This vaccine is in its early stages but with the proper support, it may contribute to an affordable, life-saving cure.
I am online
We’re always warned about what personal details we share on social media. But what does the language people use on platforms like Facebook and Twitter tell us about their wellbeing? Words by Dr Olga Bogolyubova.
Today being an Internet user means being a social media user. The two have become synonymous.
According to the Global Web Index report, there are now over three billion people worldwide using at least one social networking site. The average Internet user has eight social media accounts and is active on at least three platforms. In our contemporary world, most of us spend a significant chunk of our lives online.
This is a modern reality: we access information online, purchase goods and services online, search for jobs online, follow professional interests online, schedule events online, invest in relationships online (some of them purely virtual), and then spend the remaining idle time browsing through our news feeds.
Humans are social creatures, and like other big apes we care about hierarchies and group status. This is reflected in our behaviour on social media, where we actively engage in impression management. We select aspects of our lives to present online in the hopes that they will bring us more benefits, while editing out other parts that could cause negative consequences.
We want to look happy, popular, rich, and successful, or if that doesn’t work, at least try to come across as dramatic or alluring. But in a world where the line between reality and the digital world continues to blur, can we really separate our real-life characteristics from our online persona? Can we effectively hide aspects of our offline identity when online? Are we as good at concealing our true selves as we think we are?
A few years back, Dr Michal Kosinski and his team set out to find answers to the above questions. They sought to determine if it would be possible to predict individual characteristics (such as age, gender, sexual orientation, and so on) and personality traits from Facebook Likes.
Over 58,000 people volunteered to take part in the study and provided their Facebook Likes, demographic data, and answers to a set of psychometric measures.
Ethnic origin and gender were predicted from Likes with the highest level of accuracy (95% and 93%, respectively). Prediction of religion, political preferences, and sexual orientation was also good, with 75% to 85% accuracy. However, predicting personality traits turned out to be somewhat more difficult.
In psychology, personality traits are described as characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and, by definition, these are latent variables, meaning that they are not directly observable but derived from answers to a set of questions. Even so, Kosinski’s research team did manage to demonstrate significant connections between the study participants’ personality traits and their Facebook Likes, with the trait of Openness showing the best predictive potential.
The study has attracted a lot of attention. Other researchers have since been attempting to predict individual characteristics from various features of social media profiles. At first glance, some of the findings may look strange or even absurd. For instance, in one of the studies aimed at predicting personality traits from profile pictures, it was found that extroverted people are less likely to have profile pictures with nostrils showing. Sounds ridiculous… but it actually makes sense if you think about it. By definition, extroverted individuals are more likely to be mindful of other people’s perceptions of them, more likely to see themselves from another’s point of view. As a result, they’ll post better selfies and profile pictures when compared to introverts, who are more likely to upload casual snapshots as profile pictures.
This observation shows that we are unable to control the little details of our behavior. There as so many minute variables involved that it is impossible for us to keep track of them all. A lot of non-vital and therefore ‘unnecessary’ information slips through, yet it reveals a lot about us. This is also found in language. While we usually have no trouble controlling what we say, it is much harder to control how we speak. The topics of our conversations with friends and strangers are firmly under our control, but our use of pronouns and articles in everyday conversations is not. The style of our language is invisible to us.
Honing in on the invisible
James Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, USA, was among the first behavioural scientists to propose computational approaches for the study of these invisible, functional components of language.
Pennebaker’s research demonstrated that it is these ‘stealth’ elements that connect deeply with our psychological makeup and state of mind. His ideas provided a starting point for a lot of current social media-based research. After all, our online presence is still largely text-based and rooted in language, and it is only natural that a lot of social media research is based on linguistic analysis.
Many studies are exploring predictors of how online language is being used. For instance, in a recent Facebook-based study, conducted in collaboration with my colleagues from St. Petersburg State University, Russia, we explored connections between subjective wellbeing (i.e. level of satisfaction with one’s life and positive emotionality) and language used in wall posts.
We were able to show that individuals with lower levels of subjective wellbeing are more likely to use ‘should statements’ in their language. In psychotherapy there is a long-standing tradition to regard ‘should statements’ as a type of irrational thinking associated with distress and mental health problems. It is interesting that we were able to demonstrate the relevance of these classic, pre-Internet theories to the contemporary world.
Identifying markers of mental health problems in online language is another important strand of research. Anxiety and mood disorders are the most common mental health conditions, responsible for a significant burden worldwide. They are also treatable, so early identification is vitally important, and social media may provide a platform for screening, psychoeducation, and connection to treatment (including affordable digital interventions). Research can change these citizens’ lives.
Social media-based research on mental health disorders has consistently found an increased use of first person pronouns (I, me) by people with depression. The finding reflects the painful self-centeredness of the mind in mental illness. Some other findings include observations on language use in post traumatic stress disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as on identification of suicide risk.
Social media can be risky, but is it the monster we are seeing splattered all over mainstream media? Research can help build systems that bring mental health interventions to low resource regions, and it can aid in identification of suicide risk and risk of violence. Ultimately, it can promote healthy living and save lives.
Living with a rare disease
Author: Clayton Axiak
Picture yourself waking up one morning with a severe, relentless itch that no clinician or diagnostic tool can understand. Your life would be thrown off kilter. Quality of life would suffer financially, psychologically, and socially as you try to look for a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. This is what life is like for most people living with a rare disease.
Often barraged with terms like ‘unknown’ or ‘undiagnosed’, matters can get even more challenging when the condition becomes more elusive or develops life-threatening consequences. And all of this is exacerbated by inequities in treatment and high costs of the few existing drugs that are available.
By EU standards, a rare disease is one that affects fewer than one in 2,000 individuals. And these ‘less common’ ailments are difficult to raise monies for to research, leaving large gaps in scientific and medical literature. One such disease is the poorly understood Idiopathic Hypogonadotropic Hypogonadism (IHH).
Characterised by the absence of puberty and infertility, IHH can be compounded by potentially severe characteristics such as congenital heart disease, osteoporosis at a young age, and early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Its cause is usually a genetic anomaly, but a single genetic change can affect two people very differently. This gives rise to an unparalleled complexity that makes the cause harder to decipher. Symptoms are not clear-cut and sometimes mask the actual underlying cause, bringing about misdiagnosis and delayed treatment. Timely diagnosis is crucial for successful treatment that enables the patient to achieve puberty and induce fertility. But this is not always possible.
Under the guidance of Dr Rosienne Farrugia, I am currently analysing and expanding upon a preliminary assessment of IHH in Malta using high-throughput sequencing (HTS) technology (conducted by Adrian Pleven). With HTS, we can read a person’s entire DNA sequence and attempt to identify differences in the DNA code which lead to such diseases.
What the team has found is that some genetic variants typical of IHH are more common in the Maltese population when compared to mainland Europe and African populations. This is likely due to the reduced genetic variation of our population, shaped by successive events of population reduction and expansion throughout our history.
By mapping the genetic cause of diseases prevalent on our islands, we can help medical consultants to employ specific screening tests that are tailored for local patients suffering from IHH. Such advancements in genomic technology and personalised medicine can make a huge impact on people’s lives. And not only to those suffering from IHH; researching one disease, however rare it may be, can shed light on mechanisms that prove useful in treating many others, ensuring that when it comes to health, no one is left behind.
This research project is being carried out as part of a Ph.D. program in Applied Biomedical Sciences at the Faculty of Health Sciences.
Busting out of the box
Aesthetic physician and artistic consultant Dr Joanna Delia traces her journey from medical student to successful business owner, telling Teodor Reljić that her experience at the University of Malta helped her resist excessive industry specialisation.
Modern life is rigidly compartmentalised. Perhaps this is more true of the West than anywhere else, where the materialist, rationalist models that have aided efficiency and technological advancement also require us to absorb vast amounts of knowledge early on, and specialise later.
Many educational systems reflect this tendency and the Maltese model is no exception. From a very young age, exams come in thick and fast, and cramming to pass them replaces a more holistic education.
Dr Joanna Delia is not a fan of the word ‘holistic’—preferring the term ‘polyhedral’ for reasons that will be explained later—and has enjoyed a career trajectory that has flouted excessive specialisation. A doctor turned aesthetic physician with an interest in the world of contemporary art, Delia’s journey is an affront to such restrictive notions.
While she assures me that her own time at the University of Malta (UM) was nothing short of amazing, in recounting the roots of her intellectual curiosity, she is compelled to go even further back.
‘Like every excited little girl, my dreams used to alternate and metamorph somewhere between wanting to be a writer like Emily Brontë or Virginia Woolf and a scientist who would make incredible discoveries and change the world like Marie Curie,’ Delia recalls. ‘I also wanted to be a doctor who would cure people in war-torn countries, yet fantasised about being Alma Mahler or a young Chanel surrounded by philosophers, drenched in fine clothes and surrounded by white rose bouquets…’
Delia recounts this awareness that we’re shaped to view these inclinations as contradictory. But for her, the intuitive desire to learn about and closely observe scientific phenomena matched the heights of aesthetic appreciation.
Vella’s own student enthusiasm did not come as immediately as all that, however. While she is now secure in her three-pronged role as writer, performer, and translator (also acknowledging her former role as a lecturer), forging an early path as a student meant first squinting through the fog.
‘I just loved learning the science subjects… figuring out protein synthesis and DNA replication literally made me feel giddy, light headed, downright euphoric! I was a real geek,’ Delia says with disarming self-deprecation. ‘To me, it was just the same as reading an incredible work of literature or staring at a work of contemporary art alone in one of the silent, perfectly lit halls of a museum.’
Given this internal push-pull across various disciplines, Delia confesses that in terms of pursuing the later strands of her formal education, she ‘floated into medical school’ without feeling the need to strategise things much further. It was only upon graduation that the realities of being slotted into a specialised discipline dawned on her with an ominous pall.
‘The day I graduated I felt a suffocating feeling: the thought that I had somehow sealed my fate,’ Delia says, though the sense of regret which followed did not linger for much longer.
‘Looking at one’s future through a tunnel vision perspective based on the imaginary restrictions of one’s degree is just that a self-imposed illusion,’ Delia observes.
Her University years were active and inspiring, with Delia having happily taken on extra-curricular activities and also quietly rebelled against the notion of boxed-in specialised disciplines.
University and beyond
‘University was amazing! I would repeat those years ten times over,’ Delia unapologetically enthuses. Though she does acknowledge that the Medicine course was challenging to begin with—citing the ‘competition among students’ as an additional factor—she looks back on both her time there, and her association with the UM’s Medical School, with immense pride.
‘My lecturers were charismatic and experts in their field, which of course garners respect and made us feel honoured to be part of that system,’ Delia says, while also recalling her involvement in additional campus activities.
‘I was the chair of the environmental committee at KSU and served two terms as the Officer for the Sub-Committee on Refugees and Peace within MMSA. I loved my time on campus, and encourage all students to participate in campus affairs. We never stopped organising fairs, events, fundraisers, workshops, and outreach programmes with the community…’
Hinting at an essential discomfort with the idea of overbearing specialisation, Delia believes ‘the Maltese education system does not proactively encourage sharing knowledge’, but also notes that she did find hope, solidarity, and inspiration among her peers, from various faculties.’ I socialised with students from the architecture department, and attended their workshop parties. I was invited to history of art lectures and tours. I organised panel discussions to reduce car [use] on campus and lobby for [a] paperless [campus],’ Delia says. All these activities contributed to ‘a feeling of a hopeful future’.
Adjacent to Delia’s academic efforts were her course-related travels abroad, which contributed to expanding her horizons. ‘I did internships in Rio De Janeiro and travelled to India and Nepal through the Malta Medical Students’ Association (MMSA), both of which were incredible experiences.’ During this time, she gained a keener interest in art.
‘My sister was studying history of art and eventually read for a Ph.D. in Museology. I followed her as closely as I could; her subjects fascinated me and a lot of her excitement about art rubbed off on me…’
But first, her early medical career needed seeing to. Delia admits that medical students in Malta are somewhat privileged since they enjoy a relatively smooth changeover from academic to professional life. However, the change happens very rapidly.
‘Young doctors in Malta have the advantage of an almost flawless transition into a job. This also turns out to be the toughest time in your life, but at least there there is a continuity of support at the start of your profession,’ Delia says, citing the diligence and discipline instilled into her and her peers by their University tutors and lecturers. This rigour was crucial to ensure that those early years went on as smoothly as possible.
Pausing to reflect, Delia feels compelled to add that a culture that leaves more breathing room for exploration and enquiry could only be beneficial for the future of Maltese medicine. ‘I wish we had a stronger culture of research and publication in Malta. We need to somehow find time for it as it will not only improve the reputation of the institution but also nurture us as students, alumni, and professionals, and keep us on our toes,’ Delia says, adding that these ideas reflect the same culture of hard work that her course promoted, which rewards diligence and depth. ‘I believe in constantly keeping astride with knowledge by reading publications and actively pursuing ‘continued medical education’. I wish that the institution instilled more of this into its alumni,’ Delia muses.
This approach of constant enquiry arguably gave Delia a fount of knowledge and inspiration to draw from when she found herself at a forking road in her medical career.
”After a few years of working at the general hospital, I was lucky enough to be chosen to pursue some level of surgical training, but by that point I had realised that the life of a surgeon was not for me…’
This was an ‘extremely tough decision’, with regret once again raising its ugly head. ‘However, the 80-hour weeks, and above all the realisation that my professional life would be all about facing and treating ill and dying people, forced me to make a decision to leave the hospital,’ Delia says.
This pushed Delia to explore other careers, and she now juggles her love of both medicine and aesthetics in a sustainable way.
‘After I stopped working as a hospital doctor, there were too many things I was hungry to explore – one of them was medical aesthetics. I started pursuing training in London and Paris, and essentially spent years of salary training with the best doctors I could find.’
After working at a reputable local clinic, Delia finally managed to go at it independently, opening up her own place.
‘It was nothing short of a dream come true. I had to search hard within myself and build up entrepreneurial and management skills. I learnt the hard way sometimes, business-wise, but I was also fortunate to find help from my friends who excel in other fields like marketing, photography and architecture, to help me build my brand and clinic,’ Delia recalls.
In the end, her resistance to rigid specialisation helped her to open a thriving business called Med-Aesthetic Clinic People & Skin. She couples this work to her position as head of the Advisory Board at the newly-opened Valletta Contemporary, a boutique showcase for local and international contemporary art run by artist and architect Norbert Francis Attard.
Which brings her story back to a ‘polyhedral’ conception of the world.
‘I believe everything in life is polyhedral. I prefer polyhedral to ‘holistic’. Every square, or rather, every cube we think we’re trapped in, can be pushed out and reconfigured to welcome other disciplines. I don’t believe any of us purposely split the two fields, but I believe we don’t allocate enough time to explore all the wonders we could discover if we used both their lenses to analyse the world. After all, even Einstein believed that the most important thing in science is creativity…’
A healing touch
Emerging research suggests that mild sensory stimulation like touch can protect the brain if delivered within the first two hours following a stroke. Laura Bonnici speaks with experimental stroke specialist Prof. Mario Valentino to find out how uncovering the secrets of this ‘touch’ may have life-changing implications for stroke patients worldwide.
Stroke is universally devastating. Often hitting like a bolt from the blue, it is the world’s third leading cause of death. In Malta, over 10% of the deaths recorded in 2011 were due to stroke. But stroke inflicts suffering not only through a loved one’s passing. As the most common cause of severe disability, stroke can instantly rob a person of their independence and dignity—even their very personality. This impact, individually, socially, and globally, makes stroke research a top priority.
Yet while scientists know the risk factors, signs, symptoms, and causes of both main types of stroke—whether ischemic, in which clots stop blood flow to the brain, or haemorrhagic, where blood leaks into the brain tissue from ruptured vessels—they have yet to find a concrete solution.
A dedicated team at the Faculty of Medicine (University of Malta) hopes to change that. Using highly sophisticated technology and advanced microscopic laser imaging techniques, Dr Jasmine Vella and Dr Christian Zammit, led by Prof. Mario Valentino, can follow what happens in a rodent’s brain as a stroke unfolds in real-time.
‘We use powerful lasers and very sensitive detectors coupled with special lenses, which allow us to capture the very fast events that unravel when a blood clot interrupts the blood supply in the brain,’ explains Valentino. ‘We observe what happens to the neighbouring blood vessels, nerve cells, and support cells, and the limb movements of the rodent throughout.’ Their aim is to find out how sensory stimulation might then help protect the brain.
The idea stems from an accidental discovery in 2010 by members of the Frostig Group at the University of Irvine, USA. The scientists found that when the whiskers of a rodent were stimulated within a critical time window following a stroke, its brain protected itself by permanently bypassing the blocked major artery that commonly causes stroke in humans. The brain’s cortical area is capable of extensive blood flow reorganisation when damaged, which can be brought about by sensory stimulation.
The human brain can bypass damage. For example, blind individuals have limited use of their visual cortex, so the auditory and somatosensory cortex expands, giving them heightened sensitivity to hearing and touch. For stroke patients, this means that the brain can compensate for its loss of function by boosting undamaged regions in response to light, touch, or sound stimulation.
‘This accidental discovery could be life-changing for stroke patients. The key is to figure out the mechanism involved in how sensory stimulation affects stroke patients, and then establish the best ways to activate that mechanism. Perhaps touching a stroke victim’s hands and face could have a similar beneficial effect, and this is what this latest research study hopes to define,’ says Valentino.
‘The team is now painstakingly correlating the data obtained during this brain imaging with the rodent’s movement and trajectory,’ he continues. ‘Using a motion-tracking device fitted under a sophisticated microscope, we can record the behaviour of the rodent during high-precision tactile stimulation, such as stroking their whiskers, and detect any gain of [brain] function through behavioural and locomotor readouts whilst ‘looking’ inside the brain in real-time.’
If they can prove that any protection is the direct cause of new blood vessels (or other cells) resulting from the electrical activity inspired by the sensory stimulation, then the next step would be to explore ways of redirecting these blood vessels to the affected brain area.
The team’s track record is encouraging. In collaboration with scientists from the University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, UK, they made another recent breakthrough that was published in Nature Communications, identifying a new drug, QNZ-46, that could protect the rodent brain following a stroke.
‘That project was about neuroprotective agents – to create a drug that will substantially block or reduce the injury, and so benefit a wider selection of patients,’ elaborates Valentino. ‘The study identified the source and activity of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is the cause of the damage produced in stroke. This led to the discovery that QNZ-46 prevents some damage and protects against the toxic effects of the glutamate. This is potentially the first ever non-toxic drug that could prevent cell death during a stroke, and the results from this research could lead to pharmaceutical trials.’
While ongoing research in these projects has been supported through a €150,000 grant from The Alfred Mizzi Foundation through the RIDT, Valentino points out that globally-significant discoveries such as these are in constant need of support.
‘The funding of such projects is so important. This money is life-changing for people in such a predicament. Health research changes everything—our lifestyle, our quality of life, our longevity. And yet, government funding for research is still lacking. It’s only thanks to private companies and the RIDT, who realise the global potential of our work, that these projects can continue to try to change the lives of people all over the world,’ says Valentino.
And while Malta may be a small country with limited resources, the work conducted within its shores is reaching millions globally, proving that when it comes to knowledge, every contribution counts. We must continue striving for more to leave our best mark on the world.
Help us fund more projects like this, as well as research in all the faculties, by donating to RIDT.