At RIDT, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with Bjorn Formosa for quite a few years, and as he explained in his latest interview for our blog his ultimate aim for the ALS Malta Foundation is to leave behind a Foundation that will continue to work for ALS patients even after he’s gone… That, in fact, was one of the reasons why he set up the Bjorn Formosa PhD Scholarship, which will be giving out a bursary every year to researchers looking to focus their studies on motor neuron disorders (MNDs), including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
The first of these scholarships was granted last year, with Rebecca Borg being the first recipient. Her goal now is to focus on understanding the elusive network of genes that could link MNDs to mutations, and understanding if these MND-associated genes are common in Maltese MND-sufferers.
“I have been working with Dr Ruben Cauchi, head of the ALS/MND Research Laboratory at the University of Malta’s (UoM) Faculty of Medicine and Surgery for around five years,” Rebecca explains. “At the Faculty, I completed my B.Sc and M.Sc degrees for which we worked on understanding the function of ribonucleic acid (RNA)-binding proteins that on mutation cause a degenerative MND.”
Their findings have since been published in a number of renowned journals, including PLoS ONE, Neurobiology of Disease and Frontiers Neuroscience, and, in the meantime, Rebecca also interned at a prestigious European institute, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, with which the Faculty at the UoM has an on-going collaboration that has been very fruitful.
Due to all this, Rebecca was deemed to be a worthy candidate for the Bjorn Formosa PhD Scholarship and, following a series of interviews, she was chosen from among a couple of candidates. Only being awarded the scholarship last December, Rebecca’s work for her PhD – for which she is being tutored by Dr Cauchi – is only just beginning.
“On top of unravelling the genes and understanding whether these are common in Maltese sufferers of MNDs, we are also currently in the process of setting up the first ALS/MND Biobank in Malta,” she continues. “Following that, we will then proceed with the functional analysis of these genes using animal models [disrupting the genes in fruit flies, for instance, to create flies that, like patients, have ALS].
“Through this, we can understand how such genes cause the disease and identify ways how to cure the ALS flies. Doing so will bring us one step closer to treating the human condition… All this is possible because flies are very close to us humans on both a genetic and biological level.”
Rebecca and Dr Cauchi’s analyses might possibly reveal potential drug targets that may halt or slow down the progressive symptoms experienced by patients with MNDs – an unimaginable breakthrough that so far seems like a dream for researchers. Yet, thanks to these type of scholarships, which have been funded by people just like you through donations to the ALS Malta Foundation and RIDT, they may soon be turned into reality!
“Generally, as a lab, we struggle to fund our ALS/MND research programme, since it is often overshadowed by other research programmes that are more ‘well-known’ in Malta,” Rebecca explains. “But, thanks to Bjorn, there is currently more awareness about ALS/MNDs than ever before, and this has certainly helped us give these disorders their due importance, even though they are not as common.
“Initiatives like the Bjorn Formosa PhD Scholarships help us to expand and reinforce our skills and tools to move forward towards finding a cure for such cruel disorders. Also, it is very encouraging to see that local initiatives like this believe in Malta’s own researchers and are fully-willing to support them… Honestly speaking, it’s thanks to this scholarship that I am able to pursue my studies on a full-time basis and that I am able to dedicate more time to the project,” she concludes.
The call for applications for the Bjorn Formosa PhD Scholarship open every year in January. To apply, please check the RIDT website.
Help us fund more projects like this, as well as research in all the faculties, by donating to RIDT. Click here for more information on how to donate.