Mining the Maltese amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) gene pool is expected to be effective in pinning down novel gene abnormalities that either cause or provide almost complete protection against the disorder. This was stated by Dr Ruben J. Cauchi, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry, during the signing of the three-year agreement between ALS Malta Foundation and the University of Malta.
ALS Malta Foundation, set up by Mr Bjorn Formosa, will be donating funds for a three-year Ph.D. scholarship to the University of Malta, through the University’s Research Trust (RIDT). Amounting to €90,000, the funding will sponsor a postgraduate study programme in ALS, also known as motor neuron disease (MND).
The scholarship will be named as the “Bjorn Formosa Advanced Scholarship for Research into ALS/MND”, named after the founder and chairman of ALS Malta Foundation. Mr Formosa has distinguished himself as a trailblazer in ALS advocacy and fundraising. The rector of the University of Malta and chairman of RIDT Prof. Alfred J. Vella and Mr Bjorn Formosa signed the three-year agreement, followed by a donation presentation at the Valletta Campus.
“I always believed that empowering our researchers with the best resources is the best method to identify new genes and to find the correct pathway halting the disease,” said Mr Formosa. “Unfortunately there is still no cure for ALS and, for this reason, we must concentrate most of our efforts on boosting research in the hope of finding a possible solution. I firmly believe that by collaborating with the global scientific community; scientists will find at least a method that will halt the progression of this terrible condition.”
While thanking Mr Formosa for his noble initiative and determination, Prof Alfred J. Vella said: “This donation to the MND Lab at the University will strengthen and expand its mission in furthering the understanding of the mechanisms underpinning motor neuron disorders. Such knowledge enables researchers to develop treatments to improve the lives of patients with this incurable condition.”
The scholarship has been established with the aim of attracting and funding promising young scientists to develop their careers in ALS/MND research. The research programme will be led by Dr Ruben J. Cauchi. A call for applications will be issued soon to select a candidate with at least an undergraduate degree in biomedical science or a relevant subject. Further details will be launched in the beginning of 2017.
Funds raised through the Ice Bucket Challenge, that went viral in 2014, has recently led to the successful identification of the NEK1 gene as key contributor to ALS. The crucial study provides another potential target for therapy development, thereby bringing scientists one step closer to treating this neurological disorder. This important breakthrough would not have been possible if the US-based ALS Association had not invested a substantial amount of funds gathered, in the creation of large ALS BioBanks, designed to enhance gene discovery.
“Mapping the Malta ALS/MND genome is an ambitious challenge but certainly a step in the right direction. The advancements made in ALS/MND research may not seem major to some, but in reality they are paving the way towards finally understanding, and hopefully treating this disorder. Bjorn’s dedication to the cause and his strong belief that research has the key to eradicate ALS has been a game changer,” said Dr Cauchi.
ALS Malta Foundation is the only national charity in Malta focused on MND care, research and campaigning. The foundation is a powerful network that provides information and support alongside lobbying for improved services. Further information and donations can be made to: www.alsmalta.org/donate
The Research Trust has been established in 2011 as a joint initiative between the University of Malta and the Government of Malta and has the objective of raising funds to sustain and bolster research activity within the various departments of the university.