Maltese researchers have gone to all parts of the globe with their findings and innovations. Now they’re even taking their science beyond Earth.
Project Maleth will be the first Maltese experiment to be done on the final frontier – space.
Led by associate professor of biomedical science at the University of Malta Joseph Borg, the team will be taking samples of microorganisms that cause diabetic ulcers and sending them to the International Space Station.
Researchers will then get to analyse, remotely, how the samples react and use that knowledge to help patients treat their diabetes.
“This will be an absolute first for Malta, to send an experiment to outer space, to the International Space Station,” Borg told Times of Malta.
“Some people find that very exciting and interesting and there are others who view it as a massive waste of resources. Or they call us Apollo 13 pretenders.
“The truth is that research conducted onboard the ISS is of extreme importance to medical health on earth, not just for humans but for life in general,” he said.
He described the space station as a glorified laboratory the size of a football pitch, with a lot of unique equipment and tools, some of which is dedicated to life sciences.
“I strongly believe that if we think we can do something to improve our health, then we should make use of all the means possible to do so.”
The experiment, Borg says, will allow the researchers to view the microbiome samples in a new dimension and expose them to higher levels of stress, and document how the organisms react.
“We are studying the microbiome of foot ulcers in diabetic patients, some of them in a rather bad condition which most likely require surgery or amputation.
This will be an absolute first for Malta, to send an experiment to outer space
“The problem with these bacteria is that they can be very resistant to medication and can be quite tough to treat. And that’s exactly what we want to look at. We want to put that resistance to the test and see how it will react in extreme conditions.”
Space will allow the researchers to put the problem in a new light and give them certain advantages. The ‘microgravity’ environment will cause cells to float in suspension and interact together in a different way than in a petri dish, he explained.
“Secondly, space has much higher levels of solar radiation. This will act as a stress or harassment factor to the bacteria which will try to survive by adapting. We want to see how it will adapt.”
Scientists could then exploit important genetic changes, or biomarkers, to treat foot ulcers at a genetic level, with more precision and much earlier in the patient’s diagnosis.
While still in its infancy as a field or research, the demand for this kind of science is growing globally, Borg says.
“Studying the effects of space on growth cells is hugely in demand.”
“Nasa has sent tissue chips into space, the results of which is allowing them to grow heart muscle and even bone cells. The immense technology and benefit of new data you can get from this type of research is huge.”
The social aspect of this achievement is not lost on Borg either. Along with Project Maleth, the experiment will be accompanied by messages and drawings from Maltese school children, which will be streamed into space from the ISS.
And with Borg travelling to Brussels to deliver the samples this week, before they make their way to Space X’s launch site in Cape Canaveral in Florida, the excitement is rising.
“Honestly there’s an element of this which is utterly surreal to me. The exhilaration you feel from this sort of thing, I almost want to pinch myself and say, ‘this is real, this is happening’. The fact that it’s a first for Malta, the fact that it will be leaving on board a SpaceX to the ISS, I mean, how are you supposed to feel,” he said.
“And in all humility, while there’s an element of pride that we’re going to be the first, I really hope we’re not just the first. I am convinced that there will be many more. Like I’ve managed to design and plan this experiment, there are others locally who are just as capable and are able to utilise the same type of platform.”
“Ultimately we would all stand to benefit, we all stand to learn and it will be really interesting to see projects small and large coming from Malta to space.”
In the run-up to the launch on August 28, where it will remain in orbit until October 28, Project Maleth is also running a crowdfunding campaign that allows members of the public the opportunity to send their own messages into space and be part of the galactic adventure.
For more information go to Maleth at zaar.com.mt