Breast cancer is diagnosed to fit one of three groups, each of which requires a different treatment method. Shawn Baldacchino, a PhD student whose research and studies are being funded through donations by NGO’s and the community, is currently working on determining the best way to cure the most untreatable of them all.
With over 300 new cases every year, breast cancer is a very pressing issue both for the authorities, as well as for ordinary people on the street. Worldwide, treatments have advanced manifold, and the high-level of healthcare enjoyed by those in Malta means that, today, one out of every four patients survives.
But the fight against breast cancer is not over, and scientists and researchers across the globe are constantly trying to find new and better ways to prevent and cure this disease. In order to do this, they also need to understand what brings it about, and PhD student Shawn Baldacchino, along with the Breast Cancer Research team at the University of Malta, are at the forefront of this research.
“Tumours arise from cellular errors,” says Shawn, who is under the supervision of Dr Godfrey Grech (from the Department of Pathology) and Professor Christian Scerri (from the Department of Physiology and Biochemistry). “That is why, as part of my PhD, we are currently looking at a particular pathway involved in the formation of cancer, to find out how we can reactivate control in the cancerous cells and get them to realise that they have to either die due to a large number of errors or go into normal differentiation (the process with which a cell becomes specialised in a function).”
As Shawn explains, breast cancer can be broadly divided into three main groups: ER+ (estrogen receptor positive), HER2+ (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 positive), and Triple Negative. “The difference is in what can be used to treat them,” he says.
“ER positive breast cancer is treated by using a hormonal therapies, while HER2 positive is targeted with trastuzumab,” he continues. “The Triple Negative tumour will not respond to any of these treatments hence proves more difficult to treat.”
The breakthrough in using this approach came by Shawn’s supervisor, Dr Godfrey Grech, who identified PP2A (the protein phosphatase 2a enzyme) as a crucial protein in cell function, at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
“What they discovered was revolutionary,” says Shawn. “While studying a model of red cell production, Dr Grech and others found a particular protein called PP2A. After further research, they discovered that it is involved in a lot of cell functions, particularly in its survival, in stopping the excess proliferation of cells, and in helping cell differentiation.”
Shawn has been working on his PhD for the past four years, and he is soon flying to Leeds to develop the collaboration, continue working on understanding PP2A, and to further the research to develop methods for identifying tumours that might be treatable by re-activating PP2A.
“We collaborate very actively with Leeds University Hospital, and so far they’ve sent us around 550 samples of breast cancer tissues for testing,” he explains “I’m now taking them along with other samples from Malta, to have them scanned. I will also be working on an experiment on a particular cell line of interest (a population of cells taken from a single cell, thus containing the same genetic makeup).”
Shawn is now in his final year of studies, a process that will have taken him five years to complete – two years part-time and three years full-time. The decision to move from part to full-time would have been impossible without monetary funding that was awarded to him by the ALIVE Charity Foundation and Action for Breast Cancer Foundation through RIDT.
“I believe that it is important to help researchers and scientists further education and research on our shores,” he says. “After all, our genetic make up is quite unique and that is invaluable in itself. In fact, I’m very grateful and proud for this opportunity to continue my research here in Malta.”
During his research, Shawn also works with Mater Dei Hospital, where he is allowed to use laboratory equipment. More than that, however, the hospital staff is always eager to assist him in furthering his research.
“The hospital can also supply us with samples of living tumours without compromising patient safety or diagnosis,” he adds. “These are the closest we can get to testing these new treatment and procedures directly on tumours without affecting patients, which can provide the robust evidence on the viability of using this treatment when we are still in the lab testing phase.”
A cure based on the discoveries of PP2A, while it exists, has so far never been tested on actual cancer patients. It has, however, been tested on human colon cancer models, and the results were exactly what researchers – including Shawn – were expecting.
“Scientists abroad tend to look at big data, but in Malta we have developed an approach with which we focus our efforts on a particular cellular process, studying it and also applying big data available from foreign research centres to look for the implications of things. This has proven to work time and time again, and that’s why we shouldn’t underestimate ourselves in Malta,” he concludes.
Shawn’s success would not have been possible had it not been for the generous support by the community. These donations are helping Maltese researchers and scientists discover a whole new world of possibilities that may make life better for many people around the globe.
The Breast Cancer Research Team at the University of Malta is headed by Dr Godfrey Grech and Prof Christian Scerri and driven by Dr Christian Saliba along with PhD students Shawn Baldacchino, Dr Elaine Borg, Maria Pia Grixti, Dr Ritienne Debono, Vanessa Petroni and Masters students Dr Keith Sacco and Robert Gauci.
You can be part of this fascinating world of research too by helping many other researchers achieve their breakthroughs in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).