Cocaine, Heroin, Cannabis, Amphetamine, LSD, the contraceptive pill, The Doors and Rolling Stones are children of the 60s. Chemistry fuelled the rise of free love, drug use, and a new ever-resonant culture. But, this culture also has a dark side: sexually transmitted infections, lost potential, and lives.

The Poster

Interested? Professor Richard Muscat (University of Malta – Pro-Rector for Research) will be talking about ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ on the 10th May at 7.15pm, Music Room, St. James Cavalier. The talk will be followed by an open discussion. Free entrance, no special science background is required, and all are welcome.

For over 20 years, Professor Richard Muscat has researched the effects of drugs of abuse on the brain. His research has focused on brain pleasure pathways and their relation to moods. In turn, how drugs affect the way people behave both in the short and long term. The brain chemical dopamine plays a critical role in influencing how people respond to pleasurable situations and unfortunately as a consequence relapse following repeated drug use. Another three important links are the predisposition to drug use, age of first drug use, and anxiety/depression.

The speaker Chairs the Research Platform of the Pompidou Group, Council of Europe, a group that combats drug abuse and illicit drug trafficking. Malta Cafe Scientifique is supported by The Malta Chamber of Scientists and the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector, and aided by the University of Malta. Email or find us on Facebook for further information.


Malta has been participating in the largest and most powerful scientific instrument ever created by humanity, the Large Hadron Collider. It is an 8 billion euro, 27km long juggernaut buried 100m under the Franco Swiss border. Its goal is to accelerate particles close to the speed of light and collide them head on fast enough to recreate the conditions of the big bang on a much smaller scale. The collisions will allow scientists to understand what makes up matter.

On the 11th April at 18:30 Music Room, St. James Cavalier, Dr Ing. Nicholas Sammut (researcher at the University of Malta and CEO of MCST) will chair the Malta Chamber of Scientists Business and Scientific meeting. The speakers include Ms Marija Cauchi and Mr Gianluca Valentino, researchers at the University of Malta and CERN. They will be giving an overview of what CERN does and how the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) works. They will talk about the critical role of the University of Malta in some of the LHC’s components. Science professionals, educators and students are all welcome. After the presentations, a discussion will be held over drinks and nibbles.

Pictures courtesy of Dr Ing. Nicholas Sammut.

The Next Malta Cafe Scientifique talk in Collaboration with Green Drinks Malta on the 12th April 2012


I want to switch on my laptop, AC, and smartphone and I want to use them as much as I want: guilt-free. And, I’m not alone; Malta’s energy demand has steadily increased till it peaked at around 430MW a few years ago. Don’t despair. Malta has exciting plans to build a wind farm that would adsorb a large chunk of this demand.

Light My Lightbulb (poster: Nicole Diacono)

Interested? Come along to the next Malta Café Scientifique talk (in collaboration with Green Drinks Malta) by Dr Ing. Tonio Sant (Faulty of Engineering, University of Malta) called ‘Light my Lightbulb’ at 7.15pm 12th April, Music Room, St. James Cavalier.

The Maltese Islands are a tricky place to harvest wind energy. Space is limited and our seas are deep, so deep that large wind farms are only possible at depths of around 70 meters. Offshore wind farms already exist, but this depth presents huge technical challenges. These wind turbines need to be adapted to Malta’s unique conditions.

One major problem is storms. No one wants their multi-million investment to be swallowed by the waves. To prevent this scenario the speaker and his team are researching how to properly anchor these giant turbines.

Wind turbines also need to operate under the lightest of breezes. Its blades need to turn and provide energy on calm days, which depends on their design. This is another research area of Dr Sant, whose finding will be important for Malta to develop wind farms suited to the Island’s needs. It will let us use our AC without worrying too much about our effect on the planet.

Light my Lightbulb’ will be held at the Music Room, St. James Cavalier, at 7.15pm, Thursday 12th by Malta Cafe Scientifique in collaboration with Green Drinks Malta and supported by The Malta Chamber of Scientists and the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector. The talk will be given by Dr Ing. Tonio Sant, followed by an open discussion. Email or find us on Facebook for further information. Entrance is free. No special science background is required.

The humble fruit fly is about 2mm long, likes bananas, sings to its mate, and normally ill considered or ignored by humans. Few people know that this tiny fly has revealed more about us than any other animal. Malta Cafe Scientifique will be hosting a public discussion by Dr Edward Duca entitled ‘Flies, Sex and Lies’ at 7.15pm Thursday 8th December, Music Room, St. James Cavalier.

The fly eye

Dr Edward Duca will start off with a story: the life of a fruit fly. How it goes from birth to adolescence, then like the butterfly, forms a structure around itself to develop into the adult. Unlike the butterfly, a rather ugly fly emerges instead of technicolor wonder. Once grown up the male fly needs to dance, sing, and woo females any way it can to produce children. How the fly develops has taught us humans how we develop, and what happens when things go wrong: the specter of genetic disease.

Pharmaceutical companies study the effects of new medicines on the fruit fly. They test them on fruit flies that have been changed slightly to show diseases like obesity, motor neuron disease that Stephen Hawking and Mao Zedong suffered from, and brain degenerating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease. These models let pharmaceutical companies test new drugs quickly and cheaply before trying them in mice (followed by humans). They also let scientists find out why these diseases develop, hoping that they are translated into cures for human disease.


The fruit fly might be tiny, but it has been a treasure trove of discovery.

Fly fat cells with fat stained green and DNA blue

Fly Fat


‘Flies, sex and lies’ will be held at the Music Room, St. James Cavalier, at 7.15pm, Thursday 8th December by Malta Cafe Scientifique and supported by The Malta Chamber of Scientists. The talk will be given by Dr. Edward Duca, followed by an open discussion. Email or find us on Facebook for further information. Entrance is free and a free drink and nibbles will be provided to all attending. No special science background is required.

A fantastic new funding opportunity for artists to get creative with science-inspired ideas. Looking forward to reading all of your fantastic ideas.

Science Event Running 28th September, 2012

Submission for Art Installation

Aims:        1. To show how science is all around us and that researchers are normal human beings with an extraordinary job.

2. To develop art inspired by a scientific concept or idea, perhaps even science happening locally.

3. Interaction with the public

4. Located between the streets and buildings of St. James Cavalier, St. George’s Square and possibly Manoel Theatre in Valletta, Malta

Pluses, but not essential:

art can be replicated in more than one street

It can be retained longer than one night (around one week— a month)

What we need from you (1–3 pages long—short and sweet):

Art Project Summary — most important part to showcase your idea, focus on what is most important for your project.

Background and objectives —  details on the theory developed, scientific theory it is based on or exploring

Execution (Methods) — location, type of art, what it consists of

costings (including breakdown of costs) — materials, hours and so on. In Euros, inc. VAT.

Evaluation — How would you gauge if the audience liked it, and how much did they take back from it. This will need to be co-ordinated with the whole event, but have a think about it, it might not be feasible depending on the artwork.

Outcomes — how many people are you expecting to reach, target audience, what will audience take from the art.

Deadline: 1st December 2011 (extended till 8th December). Proposal will then be chosen by the board to be sent for funding. The result of the funding would be received by end of February.

Types of Art accepted: anything innovative and creative.

Contacts: please send your proposals to: For more information: Lily Agius (; Mob: 9929-2488) or Edward Duca ( ; Mob: 9923-9974).

Selection of proposals it will be judged on:

Location — in Valletta and close to the main events
Science — how well-grounded/inspired by science?
Innovation (creativity) — how artistically creative and ground-breaking is the idea?
Cost — not necessarily the lowest, but cost-effective considering what is being provided
Reach — how many people are reached by the art

Most Weight will be given on the Science and Creative criteria.


Please sign and date your proposal

Administering neural progenitor cells (NPC) is one of the most promising ways to treat multiple sclerosis. Jingwu Zhang and co-workers1 now report in Cell how these cells release the cytokine leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF) that reduces disease progression.

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system causing inflammation, loss of myelin sheets, and the eventual degeneration of neurons. These symptoms are linked to specialised cells of the immune system called helper T cells. A subset of helper T cells, T helper 17 (Th17), release interleukin-17 (IL-17), a key inflammatory factor in the development of multiple sclerosis.

Neural Progenitor Cells (NPC) help to reduce disease progression of MS. The researchers found that NPCs secrete a factor which inhibits specific cells in the immune system. The picture shows spinal cord sections, on the left untreated diseased tissue, on the right treatment with NPCs. © Cell.

The role of IL-17 in disease progression was cleared observed in several studies performed using mice with chemically induced multiple sclerosis (experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis; EAE). Removal of IL-17 delayed disease onset and reduced its severity. On the other hand, the disease was worsened by the increased expression of IL-17 or a greater number of Th17 cells.

So, how do NPCs reduce multiple sclerosis? Currently, they are thought to migrate to damaged neurons and differentiate into myelin sheets that protect the neurons. However, only 5–10% of NPCs form myelin sheets. To discover any additional mechanisms, the researchers injected NPC cells into diseased mice. The cells migrated to the spleen and reduced symptoms by inhibiting Th17 cell formation, which suggested that the NPC cells must release a secreted factor. This was confirmed by treating the mice with irradiated NPC cells and an NPC cell supernatant, which also inhibited the disease.

To identify the factor responsible, the researchers tested several NPC secreted proteins on Th17 cell differentiation, identifying LIF. Recombinant LIF was then injected into diseased mice that suppressed disease progression. These mice had lower levels of Th17 cells, but normal levels of other immune cells. Conversely, inhibiting LIF with a neutralising antibody reserved this recovery.

Further studies showed that LIF works by binding to CD4+ T cells and preventing their differentiation into Th17 cells. Upon binding to the LIF receptor, LIF triggers the extracellular signal-regulated MAP kinase (ERK) signalling pathway that increases the level of suppressor of cytokine signaling 3 (SOCS3). SOCS3 prevents the phosphorylation of Janus kinase-2 (JAK-2) and signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT3) inhibiting differentiation of the Th17 cells.

Finally, the researchers tested whether LIF has the same role in humans. They first purified healthy CD4+ T cells and then added either recombinant human LIF or NPC supernatant. Similarly to the mouse, these treatments prevented Th17 cell differentiation, which was negated by adding a LIF-neutralising antibody. These results were repeated in cells from 18 subjects with multiple sclerosis, confirming their relevance to human disease.

This important work shows how LIF inhibits Th17 differentiation in both mice and human models. The advantage of LIF is its selectivity — it specifically inhibits Th17 cells and does not affect other immune cells. Other studies specify how LIF can stimulate a neural repair mechanism, which also improves neuronal survival. The researchers suggest that this dual action makes LIF a strong candidate to develop a better therapy to treat multiple sclerosis.

Cao, W. et al. Leukemia inhibitory factor inhibits T helper 17 cell differentiation and confers treatment effects of neural progenitor cell therapy in autoimmune disease. Immunity 35, 273–284 (2011).

doi: 10.1016/j.immuni.2011.06.011

These are placental mammals (Wisconsin Historical Images;

Biologists obsessed with mammalian evolution have been having a debate that sometimes gets nasty. They’re fighting over when placental mammals, that includes you and I, diverged from the marsupials, those cute and cuddly kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils. But a new fossil unearthed in China [] by Zhe-Xi Luo in the USA and researchers in Beijing might force them to put their gloves down.

This debate has been raging on for quite a while, in March 2002 a small, 125 million year old, tree-climbing mammalian fossil was found. This pushed back mammalian evolution by around 50 years. Placental mammals were much older than anyone expected.

By 2007, even this date was being challenged. DNA sequences from several different placental mammals, marsupials, monotremes (platypus and short-beaked echidna) were compared to each other, which pushed back the marsupial-placental split another 20 million years.

This challenged the dogma that marsupials and placentals diverged recently and that the death of the dinosaurs allowed them to flourish. It’s a logical conclusion, but this is another case of truth being stranger than fiction.

This is a marsupial mammal (OZinOH;

The recent find by Zhe-Xi Luo and co-workers puts the nail in the coffin on this idea. They unearthed a fossil called Juramaia sinensis (Pictured), a tiny tree-climbing mammal that weighs in at around 12 to 15 g. It’s really tiny. Its teeth, jaw and heel bones are similar enough to ours to be grouped with us. On the other hand, it is different enough from other placental fossils to be stamped an ancestor. With enough fossils evolution can become very clear. Remarkably its also 160 million years old.

Juramaia Sinensis a 160 million year old placental mammal (from:

Such an old time frame matches the molecular data perfectly, and it also pushes back our own ancestors by another 35 million years. Placental mammals diverged from marsupials in the Middle to Late Jurassic before flowering plants existed; when Allosaurus roamed, the big meat-eating daddy preceding T. rex; when the 40 ton long-necked giant sauropod Supersaurus roamed America; and, when Archaeopteryx was testing its wings (As a side note: Archeropteryx is no longer the ancestor of all birds, just closely related — instead other vegetarian dinosaurs are their ancestors). J. sinensis must had had a tough time competing with these dinosaurs and was even smaller than some of the insects they might have been trying to eat. But, was a mammals life really that tough?

The evidence suggests differently. It seems that in the early and middle Jurassic, a few million years leading up to J. sinensis, mammalian evolution was exploding. Several different mammalian forms developed, though in true Darwinian fashion, only a few survived. By around 100 million years ago, they were petered down into three classes: the monotremes, placentals and marsupials. After 100 million years ago, the dominance of mammals might just have been inevitable. The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was simply a lucky break.


A Jurassic eutherian mammal and divergence of marsupials and placentals

The delayed rise of present-day mammals

Robust Time Estimation Reconciles Views of the Antiquity of Placental Mammals

Evolution of birds: Digging up the roots

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