Peeling Away the Layers of Time

THINK takes a trip to explore research and archaeological work taking place at Borġ in-Nadur, overseen by Heritage Malta, which will see the Neolithic site freed from modern-day debris and accumulated material to show the original prehistoric structure in all its glory.

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Eyes front!

How often do your date’s eyes glance down at your chest? Which products do people notice in a supermarket? How long does it take you to read a billboard?

Eye trackers are helping researchers around the world answer questions like these. From analysing user experience to developing a new generation of video games, this technology offers a novel way of interacting with machines. People with disabilities, for example, can use them to control computers. A team at the Department of Systems and Control Engineering (University of Malta) is using a research-grade eye-gaze tracker, worth around €40,000, to test technologies they are planning to commercialise soon.

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Saving the skates

Baby skate

Author: Gail Sant

They’re called ‘skates’. Yes, like the shoes. Like sting rays, but less popular.

If I had a penny for every time I uttered those words throughout my dissertation years, I’d be a rich woman. You’d think that skates, a regular at the daily fish market, would be part of people’s general fish-knowledge. But it came to me as no surprise, considering how culinarily, environmentally, and economically unappreciated they are. 

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Mathematical equation of breast tissue

Waves

Author: Daphne Anne Pollacco

Breast cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer in women and the second most common cancer overall. Malta ranked at number 17 among the 25 countries with the highest rates of breast cancer in 2018, according to World Cancer Research Fund International.

Cancer patients often need X-ray imaging for diagnosis and to track recovery. But X-ray radiation is a double-edged sword. It can help to spot the cancer, but it can also contribute to the problem.

Radiation can change the molecular and atomic structure of tissue, potentially leading to other cancers developing. But do any other technologies exist that could achieve the same result without harming patients?

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Busting out of the box

Magic wand
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. 

Expanding horizons  

”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.’

Joanna at work as an aesthetic physician Photo: People & Skin

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

Research
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.

Prof. Mario Valentino

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.’

The use of two-photon laser-scanning microscopy allows the measurement of blood flow in single vessels concurrent with indicators of cellular activity deep within the rodent brain. Whisker stimulation evokes electrical activity that can be monitored by the use of genetically engineered calcium-sensitive and light-emitting neurons that sense the propagating waves of electrical activity.

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.

Link: researchtrustmalta.eu/support-research/?#donations

Saving the Maltese freshwater crab from extinction

Author: Clayton Sammut

Clayton Sammut

A considerable amount of endemic species inhabit the Maltese Islands. The Maltese freshwater crab (Qabru in Maltese) is one of them. In the 50s, the invertebrate was so abundant that freshwater crab soup was a common Maltese delicacy. And up until Malta adopted the Euro, it graced the Maltese five cent coin. The Maltese freshwater crab is unique to our heritage, but it is now threatened with extinction. 

Under the supervision of Dr Adriana Vella and the University of Malta’s conservation research group, I used various population and biological parameters to analyse the data and produce conservation recommendations.

To estimate the crab population size and density, I used two techniques known as the capture–recapture method and distance sampling in a number of repeated surveys in different sites throughout the dry (August to mid-September) and wet season (October to January). I then measured the crabs to determine their life stage and sex. This revealed more information about the reproductive population size and recruitment at each study site.

What we found was that there was an imbalance in the number of female to male breeding adults, which resulted in a small amount of offspring. This means the population cannot sustain itself, putting the species in grave danger.

Beyond health and numbers, we also directed attention to the crabs’ natural habitat. We wanted to find out whether hydrological and chemical parameters, such as water depth and water acidity, are also having an impact. As it happens, the freshwater crab’s population density is affected significantly by a water stream’s depth, width, velocity, and acidity (pH). We also found that specific sites and seasons also had an impact.

Direct water extraction, excessive use of fertilisers, and water stream channelisation are creating severe drought that suffocates the crabs during summer. So much so that adult male crabs were seen preying on their own juvenile crabs.

Looking at the rapid decline of watercourses around the Maltese Islands throughout the years, and the abuse that goes ignored and unchecked, the freshwater crab will not have a future unless we act immediately.

There are three things that we can do to undo some damage. We can fund research to determine if a reintroduction programme would work in sites which previously hosted the crab. We can also create new engineered habitats which can host the crab and bolster the population. Finally, the highly diverse habitats that are now hosting the crab can be turned into protected nature reserves. The nature reserves could engage citizens with Maltese organisms. If run as a social enterprise, it could generate funds to support important research. Protecting the animals that call our islands home is our duty as responsible citizens, but it goes beyond that. Protecting them means protecting our surroundings, our home, from a path that severs us from our roots. Protecting them is protecting ourselves. 

#GetLearnD

Students tutoring students

According to MATSEC, two in every three 18-year-old students don’t make it from sixth form to university. Gail Sant speaks to the team behind LearnD to find out more about their take on student-centred education.

You love films, videos, and photos. You relax while watching Netflix, and learn new skills on platforms like Skillshare and YouTube. Me? I adore the written word. Books, magazines, blogs are all I need to live a happy life. People are unique. And we all learn things in a unique way. 

Different people require different teaching methods to learn. But most classroom set-ups involve one teacher, one lesson, and thirty-odd students. The lesson is interpreted in thirty different ways; a few absorb more than others, leaving some in need of extra help to ace their maths test. And how do they do that? With private lessons. 

In Malta, private lessons are the go-to solution for students struggling with a subject. However, these sessions tend to be a carbon copy of school classes: one tutor, one lesson, multiple students. This problem was the seed that gave rise to the education-focused startup LearnD.

The philosophy  

LearnD is a tutoring app invented by Luke Collins, Jake Xuereb, and Dr Jean-Paul Ebejer (Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking, University of Malta). The concept behind it is simple, Ebejer says; ‘it’s a bridge between students who can act as mentors and students who need the help.’ 

LearnD does away with the one-size-fits-all standard of teaching and offers students tailor-made tutoring. Individuals are treated as such, their problems tackled through dedicated sessions. As a student, you don’t need to sit through a whole syll

From left to right; Jake Xuereb, Dr Jean Paul Ebejer and Luke Collins. Photo by James Moffett

abus of private lessons. The idea is to identify your weak points and hone in on them in select sessions. This is both time and money-efficient. 

Xuereb believes ‘private lessons can make students lazy.’ They don’t need to evaluate their problems, or focus on where their issues lie. Not when they know they’ll just cover all the topics at various points during their weekly appointment with their second teacher on Tuesday night. LearnD focuses on dividing attention unequally. If you get an easy A in physical chemistry but struggle to pass organic chemistry, it only makes sense to give the latter some extra TLC. To get to this point, students need to take a step back from their desks and separate their strengths from their weaknesses. 

This is also a big plus for tutors who don’t want to (or can’t) commit to teaching a whole syllabus. They can simply prepare a lesson for the requested topic and leave it at that, earning some extra money to accompany their stipend while gaining teaching experience.

But LearnD isn’t just about academia. Some lecturers lose touch with ‘the student life’, distancing their relationship with students. Conversely, student-tutors know the struggles a peer would be going through and can provide support. ‘No one would have a better understanding of what a sixth former needs to do to get into medicine than a medicine student,’ says Xuereb. ‘Through LearnD you can find people who have been through the exact same thing and who can offer their best advice on anything from time management to de-stressing, and everything else.’

Making it happen

The original concept was more related to finding a way for academically inclined 6th form students to contribute productively to society,’ says Xuereb. When he spoke to Collins, a fellow University of Malta student and Xuereb’s former maths tutor, the idea went from ‘an online local network’ to ‘app’. At the time, there were no local tutoring apps.

Despite both being passionate about the idea, they soon realised that they needed someone with business experience, and that’s where Ebejer came in: the LearnD team was born!

The process that made this idea into reality was not a simple one. Xuereb and Collins spent over six months working on the app, learning about the tech behind app-making and coming up with a business plan.

They got their break when they won the Take-Off Seed Fund Award in 2018 and got the necessary funds to make the app a reality. They quickly got the ball rolling, hiring designers, app developers, and marketing agents. The team grew; the app was built. Then, during the KSU Freshers’ Week in 2018, the app was partially launched, inviting potential tutors to apply. The app is now fully launched and available for students.

Troubles

The app comes with features such as the ‘Location Filter’ that are there to make your life easier.

As with all big projects, the team ran into a few setbacks along the way. One prominent techy mishap didn’t allow them to launch the app on the Apple Store, making it difficult to keep up with the launch date. 

Since the app is used by underage students, there were also a lot of safety features which needed inclusion. Tutors upload their police conducts and ID cards. Also, to make sure LearnD’s service is reliable, the team not only analyses tutors’ qualifications, but they also try and test each applicant out themselves. And for accounts which belong to students under the age of 16, parents need to authorise any communication which goes on through the app.

The team persisted through the struggles they encountered and continue to work hard to solve any problems which crop up. Despite difficulties with time management, Collins and Xuereb, both undergraduate students, expressed how this app allowed them to dive into the working world. They gained entrepreneurial maturity, understanding the importance of a reliable team which shares the same ideas and work ethic, as well as dividing funds for the project’s overall benefit.

A LearnD future

The LearnD story doesn’t stop here. ‘We want to renovate the education space,’ says Ebejer, adding  that they wish to take the next step and make it internationally available. Malta’s size makes it the perfect test bed, but they think that the app shouldn’t be limited to its home.

According to MATSEC, in 2017 only 27% of 18-year-old students acquired the necessary qualifications to get into university. Collins expressed that students ‘shouldn’t get lost’ because of a bad exam result or because of a mismatched student-teacher scenario. Students deserve to be treated as individuals, and LearnD can offer them that. 

Written in blood

Maltese researchers are leading the way in developing new diagnostic tools for cancer. Dawn Gillies finds out more from Prof. Godfrey Grech and Dr Shawn Baldacchino.

Breast cancer survival rates have been improving steadily in recent years. In Malta, 86.9% of patients currently survive, up 7% over the last decade. Thanks to new targeted therapies, the outlook is increasingly bright. But precision therapies need precision testing.  

Breast cancer diagnosis has reached new heights and with current tests using tissue biopsies, pathologists can classify patients for specific treatment. Precision medicine goes a step further. It provides more information, predicting the aggressiveness of the cancer and measuring the number of cells from the tumour that spread into the bloodstream. 

Dr Shawn Baldacchino

This does not mean that all requirements in precision therapy have been met. 

At the time of writing, there is no simple method to test patients’ ongoing benefit from treatment or to measure different tumour areas from one sample. For this to be possible, we need super-sensitive tests. This is where Prof. Godfrey Grech and Dr Shawn Baldacchino at the University of Malta come in.

Detecting the undetectable  

During his PhD, Baldacchino studied a new class of breast cancer representing most cases of the triple negative type, which affects 12% of breast cancer patients in Malta. 

In triple negative breast cancers, tests for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, and excess HER2 protein all result in negatives and are associated with aggressive tumours.  

To detect this new class of breast cancer, Grech’s team have created a new test that uses molecular substances we naturally produce in our body—biomarkers. By pinpointing the right combination of certain biomarkers, they can test for this new class within the triple negative breast cancer cases.

They initially used the test to look at biopsies from past patients. These exercises showed that they could accurately detect the cases—even in samples that were over a decade old! In fact, the test was so successful that the team is now working with biological testing industry giant Luminex to use it in hospitals worldwide. With a patent filed, research labs will get their hands on it later this year with the hope that by 2021 it will be used to directly help patients in hospitals. 

However, there is more work ahead. Encouraged by the results so far, the team wants to take the test and other current biomarker tests a step further. They want to use a simple blood sample which is less invasive, allowing patients to be monitored during therapy.

Pushing boundaries

With the method Grech and his team have optimised, obtaining information on new classes of patients that predict therapy use, detecting different tumour areas in one sample, and the use of blood to monitor the benefits of therapy have become a

Prof. Godfrey Grech, Dr Shawn Baldacchino and the team
Photo by James Moffett

possible reality. With technologies from Luminex and Thermo Fisher, they can now read over 40 biomarkers in one test simultaneously. But with blood they need a new angle. And that is happening through another test using particles that originate from cells called exosomes.

Exosomes are tiny messenger bubbles which cells release into the blood . ‘We believe that when there is a tumour in the patient, there will be a signature in these exosomes circulating in the blood,’ says Baldacchino. 

Finding these exosomes could mean detecting cancer at an earlier stage than is currently possible. The team believes they would be able to detect the exosomes that point to cancer long before a tumour shows up in scans and other regular tests—and so, they would be able to nip the cancer in the bud. But to do this, they need to be able to decode the messages the exosomes are carrying.

Positives for patients

It’s not only in the realm of breast cancer diagnosis and classification that the team can help patients—they might also be able to improve treatment. ‘Most targeted therapies currently try to inhibit specific receptors and proteins to stop the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells,’ Grech says. But through their research, the team has found that targeting the low activity of specific complexes of proteins in tumour cells is key. Their research models show that increasing the activity of these protein complexes is possible using specific drugs.  

This is true for triple negative breast cancer, where the amount of PP2A protein is extremely low. The PP2A protein enables the body to fight the cancer, so increasing its activity would create a chain reaction in the body which could limit the growth and spread of that category of cancer cells.

This approach to treatment has applications beyond triple negative breast cancer. Grech is hopeful that PP2A production could be amped up for different types of cancer too, and lead to positive results.

Managing the unmanageable

When organising a project like this, it’s expected that things won’t go to plan. One of the biggest challenges for Grech’s team has been establishing collaborations with other groups across the globe. They need these connections to provide the samples required to test their systems. With other groups working on similar projects, time is a limited resource. Thankfully, the team found collaborators in Leeds (UK), and Barcelona (Spain), allowing the group access to the samples they need. 

What is certain is that support for this work has come in many shapes and forms. The project received funding both from public donations and the Malta Council for Science and Technology. Baldacchino also found an ally in the charity foundation Alive with the help of the Research Trust of the University of Malta (RIDT). He is the first recipient of funding from them, and their first graduate.

Predicting the future

Thanks to projects like these, cancer research has a bright future in Malta. The team has their product launch to look forward to later this year, which will see a drastic reduction to the time and effort it takes researchers and doctors to determine the type of breast tumour.

But a lot of challenges lie ahead. The biggest challenge will come in the move to early stage cancers. These cancers have low levels of substances to detect, which means that any test they develop will have to be extremely sensitive in order to be effective. Successfully identifying these cancers would signal a massive breakthrough for the global medical community—and, more importantly, for patients. Early detection through basic blood tests would open the door to early stage treatment and a higher rate of survival. Nothing could matter more. 

Project ‘Accurate Cancer Screening Tests‘ financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology through FUSION: The R&I Technology Development Programme 2016.