University Laboratory of Molecular Genetics wins prizes at the 6th Malta Medical School Conference Two presentations made by staff and graduate students of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of the University of Malta have won prestigious awards at the 6th Malta Medical School Conference. The conference was held in December 2006 at the Radisson SAS Baypoint Resort, St’Julians, Malta. Dr. Simon Attard Montalto, Director of the Division of Paediatrics in the Malta Department of Health and Academic Head of the Department of Paediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Malta was Chairman.

Mr. Ali Ahmed Al-Ashtar M.Phil. was awarded a prize as the best post-graduate presentation. He is on the staff of Al-Fatah University in Tripoli, Libya, and a doctoral candidate at the University of Malta under the supervision of Professor Alex Felice. Mr. Ashtar employed innovative high throughput methods of molecular biology, partly developed in this laboratory, to explore the association of specified genes with the common Type II Diabetes Mellitus. Ali Ashthar’s presentation was entitled ‘Association study of Libyan and Maltese Patients with Type II Diabetes Mellitus’ and was co-authored with J. Azzopardi., S. Bezzina Wettinger., J. Borg., W. Cassar., R. Galdies, C.A. Scerri., J. Vassallo., and A.E. Felice. The work is a study on the genetic susceptibility for the development of the inflammation that underlies many common disorders such as diabetes and its complications. It has been partly supported by Asterand Inc. of the USA and the UK.

The honour of overall best oral presentation of the conference was given to Mr. Joseph Borg B.Sc. [Hons; (Medical Laboratory Science)]. He is a grant supported graduate trainee, currently reading for his Master’s degree (Pathology) in Molecular Genetics and Experimental Haematology at the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics under the supervision of Professor Alex. Felice. Borg spoke about; ‘Haemoglobin F Malta I: Interactions in vivo that regulate gamma to beta globin gene switching’ that was co-authored with C.A. Scerri., R. Galdies., W. Cassar., M. Pizzuto., M. Caruana., S. Bezzina Wettinger., and A.E. Felice. The work relates to basic biological mechanisms at the level of DNA that could be involved in gene control. It could be useful to discover innovative drugs that could be used to combat genetic disease, in particular the thalassaemias that are common in Malta and the rest of the Mediterranean.

Two other presentations were made. One by Ms. Ruth Galdies in which she described ‘A first study on the frequency and phenotypic effects of HFE gene mutations in the Maltese population’ by R. Galdies., E. Pullicino., W. Cassar., S. Bezzina Wettinger., J. Borg., and A.E. Felice. She read for a Master’s degree at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, on the basis of this work. The other was by Dr. Christian Scerri who gave ‘An update of beta-thalassaemia carrier screening in Malta’ by A.E. Felice., R. Galdies., W. Cassar., M. Pizzuto., J. Borg., S. Bezzina Wettinger., M. Caruana., and C.A. Scerri.

The awards were made at the closing ceremony by the Chairman of the Organizing and Scientific Committees, Dr. Simon Attard Montalto and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, Professor Godfrey LaFerla.

The Laboratory of Molecular Genetics also serves the Division of Pathology at St. Luke’s Hospital for Diagnostic Molecular Genetics and the Thalassaemia Clinic. It is directed by Professor Alex Felice. It is well known for its research on Thalassaemia and the molecular genetics of the Maltese population. The laboratory works closely with the European School of Genetics Medicine (University of Bologna). It is a member of three pan-European consortia; Euro-Biobank for collaboration in DNA banking in rare diseases (Eurordis), PHGEN for the development of public health policy based on modern genome science and ITHANET. The latter serves to co-ordinate clinical and academic groups from the Euro-Mediteranean region in the setting up of an ICT infrastructure for research and development in Thalassaemia and innovative research on globin gene control, including Bio-Informatics.