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  • 4 million Euro of ERDF Funding for Genetics and related Health and Biotechnology Laboratories
  • Groundbreaking research in Thalassaemia
  • Malta Biobank set up at the University of Malta
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi visited the University of Malta's Laboratory of Molecular Genetics to view the recent advances in the research on Human Haemoglobin, Thalassaemia and Gene Control and to familiarise himself with progress in the development of the Malta Genome Project at the Malta Biobank.

The research on the genetics of haemoglobin and its disorders was re-established at the University of Malta in 1989 by Professor Alex E. Felice, Professor W.H. Bannister, Professor John Rizzo Naudi and the late Dr J. L. Grech and Dr G. Hyzler, following agreement between the University of Malta and the Malta Department of Health to set up a 'Thalassaemia Project'. It was intended to develop an organisation for high quality genetics services and research together with improved opportunities for graduate education and training. The project was supported by the Government of Malta in the budget speech of 1989, the World Health Organisation, and later by four million Euro of funding through the Financial Protocol between the Governments of Italy and Malta.   

Thousands of families have been tested and counseled to prevent the transmission of severe genetic disorders such as thalassaemia. Around 35 patients are given specialized care in the Thalassaemia and Molecular Genetics Clinic at Mater Dei Hospital that is renowned for its practice and research protocols.   Patients consume around 500 litres of blood for transfusion each year and they are provided with very expensive medication, given without charge, to remove the excessive iron from the body. An oral medication to correct the gene defect could be a tremendous boost for the patients.

The Maltese research group has now uncovered an important mechanism that regulates gene switching from the foetal haemoglobin of the newborn to the adult haemoglobin. In fact, the long term goal of the research is to turn off the adult haemoglobin gene that is defective in thalassaemia and replace it by turning on the functional foetal haemoglobin gene, to bring about a genetic cure for the disease. The research has been published in NATURE GENETICS, a very high impact scientific journal. It received considerable attention world-wide. The group continues to dig deeper to unravel the mysteries of gene control and discover cures for patients with thalassaemia and other rare hereditary disorders.

In the course of these studies more than 30 candidates have graduated after reading for the new M.Sc. Degree in Bio-Medical Science or for Doctoral degrees (Ph.D.).

A number of these students were supported by the Malta Government Scholarship Scheme and the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship Scheme. Some of these graduates have secured academic positions at the University of Malta or professional positions at Mater Dei Hospital and continue to collaborate on the project. A few others have made careers in the private sector and even as academic staff of other universities overseas. Many were present and met with the Prime Minister.

Dr Gonzi was shown around the laboratories that have been recently refurbished with over 4 million Euro of funding from the European Regional Development Fund. During the tour, he could observe the installation of what is known as a 'Next Generation Sequencer' for efficient whole genome sequencing. The equipment can profile the gene expression from across the entire 3 billion units of the human genome. The single item of equipment cost just under 1 million Euro. The sequencing capability of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics will considerably enhance the teaching and research in genetics, thalassaemia and rare disease in general. It enables the Malta group to join larger networks engaged in similar research across the EU and to access EU FP funding.

The refurbishment included the secure area that hosts the Malta Biobank; a collection of biological material such as DNA, and shortly other types of tissues, together with data concerning the occurrence of certain biochemical or clinical features of the donor. Lately, both clinical and population biobanks have become powerful tools for the discovery of disease caused by changes in the DNA sequence (mutations) that are sometimes specific to a particular population. Thus, the Maltese mutations may be different from those of other populations. For the benefit of the Maltese patients these need to be discovered in Malta.

The Malta BioBank is founder member of EuroBioBank and the BioBanking and BioMolecular Research Infrastructure (BBMRI) of the EU. Euro-BioBank is the largest bank dedicated to rare disease. It has provided very high quality standards for the operation of human BioBanks. BBMRI is a consortium of European Governments intended to provide unique access to European collections, data and the foremost bio-analytical resources joining the main life science centers across the continent, the USA and Australia. The Malta project has been fully reviewed and approved by the research ethics overseers. The entire project is subject to the conditions of the informed consent as signed by the donor. It has been given the significant task of improving biobanking in the Mediterranean and North Africa. The Government of Malta has invested a quarter of a million Euro to support the further development of the BioBank at the University of Malta and to launch the Malta Genome Project. A public information dialogue will start soon and sections of the public will be invited to participate, subject, of course, to the implementation of appropriate informed consent procedures.

Commemorative plaques and an anonymous sample of an averaged Maltese Genome were presented to both the Prime Minister and the Rector.

Genetics Lab
from left to right: Professor Alex E. Felice, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, Professor Juanito Camilleri, Rector

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