On Saturday 15 May 2021, the Government of Malta announced the first scientific program – Project Maleth – to be sent to the International Space Station. With great anticipation, this shall usher Maltese science into a new era of space science and space diplomacy.
Together, the Ministry for Foreign and European Affairs, the Ministry for Research, Innovation and the co-ordination of the post-COVID-19 strategy, and the Space Applications Services based in Belgium have successfully collaborated in creating a bold and innovative mission experiment that is being led by Prof. Joseph Borg. He is an academic at the University of Malta, and President of the Malta Association of Biomedical Scientists leading his research team in experimental haematology and molecular genetics.
Project Maleth intends to set the foundation for more technical collaborations between our own Institutions and organizations as well as International partners in the field. In doing so, this will lay the necessary groundwork for more cutting edge and breakthrough science building on past success.
Access to space environment, microgravity and high radiation creates a unique opportunity to study various experimental biology experiments and fundamental biomedical science questions that in turn can have implications to real-world clinical problems.
Prof. Borg explained that two applications that he and his team are working on jointly with colleagues Afshin Beheshti (Principal Investigator at the NASA Ames Research Centre) and Christopher Mason (Principal Investigator at the Weill Cornell Medicine, USA) include the study and effects of space on human blood and control of haemoglobin expression. Another project is the study of skin microbiomes of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus patients. Skin wounds and ulcers in diabetic patients of Malta present a very challenging and significant medical problem with 10 new cases each week that require attention and medical care.
The scientific experiments are also being supported by Evolve Ltd. who are donating €30,000 to the Research, Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT) of the University of Malta.
In his address, the Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, the Hon. Evarist Bartolo said that science can be used for both good and evil - with this project our country is using it for the good of mankind. In fact, this project can help, among others, those with medical conditions related to diabetes to possibly avoid the need for an amputation.
He added that in talks with countries much larger than Malta, a great interest is aroused in how albeit geographically small, we have a lot of skills and local talent. "Project Maleth is another testament to how, as the Ministry for Foreign and European Affairs, we are committed to supporting and giving Maltese talent a chance to develop and reach its full potential on the international stage," concluded Minister Bartolo.
On his part, the Minister for Research, Innovation, and The Co-Ordination of Post Covid-19 Strategy, the Hon. Owen Bonnici said that space presents many opportunities for research and innovation.
“It is not only about astronauts and launches but it’s also part of our everyday life, from making a phone call to navigating our way around when driving. Hence Space provides a myriad of areas for research and innovation,” he said.
The Executive Chairman of the Malta Council for Science and Technology, Dr Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, said that “Esplora is a unique national resource that is helping to bridge the gap between the public, science and research, and is always a leader in this field. We have succeeded in achieving this through a variety of activities that stimulate curiosity and demonstrate that science is relevant to our daily lives, occupations, and active citizenship.” He added that “over the next 100 days, until the launch of project ‘Maleth’ into space, we will be raising awareness about its experiments and related STEM careers.”