The Vodafone Malta Foundation and the University of Malta have signed an agreement to facilitate cutting edge research that explores the causes and treatments for diseases such as diabetes, asthma, thalassaemia, and ALS.
The €100,000 project will see the development of a specialised interactive web portal and mobile app which will encourage and facilitate people’s participation at the Biobank and act as a link between the general public, researchers and patients.
The funding will be made available through the Research Trust (RIDT) of the University of Malta. The research will be carried out at the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking of the University.
The Biobank, located within the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Biobanking of the University of Malta, receives and stores high quality blood samples through which DNA is extracted and used to investigate important diseases. Certain types of conditions, such as diabetes and the blood disorder known as thalassaemia have, for some reason, a significantly higher incidence rate amongst the Maltese population than amongst our European counterparts.
Research into the local population’s genetic make-up can help shed light on why the Maltese are more predisposed towards developing certain diseases. It can also help facilitate effective treatment.
However, this is heavily dependent on a vibrant, active and collaborative pool of people who donate blood samples . These are in turn banked (stored) at the Biobank and then made available to the community of researchers for various research programmes.
Speaking at the signing of the agreement, Prof. Alfred J. Vella, Rector of the University of Malta, praised this collaboration between industry and academia. “Industry has a lot to contribute to university, and likewise, a modern university should also be there for the industry. This project brings the best of both players together, and the final beneficiary of this collaboration is society itself.”
Mr Michel Macelli, chairman of the Vodafone Malta Foundation, said that the project, which is estimated to take two years to complete, has been selected as the Vodafone Malta Foundation’s ‘Hero’ or flagship project.
“The Vodafone Malta Foundation’s primary objective is to build partnerships, support and fund projects that fall under the Connecting for Good Programme. The scope of this programme is to harness the power of mobile technology to bring about social change by innovating through technology to deliver powerful, impactful projects that have a beneficial service to the community. We are proud to be partnering with the University of Malta for a project which we believe may help change the future of healthcare in Malta.”
The online portal will enhance the relationship between the researchers and the participants by providing an IT interface where they can communicate online. This will host informative video clips describing in detail the ways individuals may actively contribute to the cutting edge research at the Centre. The videos will explain what the aims of the Biobank are, and what people should expect if they decide to participate and what their rights as participants would be.
The portal will also make it possible to use sophisticated and flexible means of giving permission for the use of samples, where the participant remains in contact with the researchers at the Biobank and is re-contacted and updated when necessary, according to their preferences. It will also allow participants to track use of their samples and be provided with information and updates about the research projects their samples are involved in.
The eventual outcomes of these research programmes will be communicated via the portal, with the portal also providing patient testimonials.
One of the projected features of the IT platform is an innovative metadata collecting mobile app which links to health data sensors (such as fitness apps on smartphones, Applewatch, Fitbit wrist bands etc.) so, with the permission of the participant, information about their physical condition such as heart rate and exercise patterns can be processed and used by the research team along with their sample.
Up to 20,000 people in Malta alone could benefit from the work undertaken by the Centre, while the model, if successful, could inform best practice in Biobank governance and genetic research programmes across the globe.