3 Maltese Physicians Making Their Mark Across The Globe

23rd April 2017 – Marie-Claire Grima

Across the world there are Maltese physicians who left the island to push the limits of medical knowledge and who are now making their mark on various areas of medicine. Three such doctors discuss their histories, achievements, and what pushes them in this challenging and life-saving profession.

Gianrico Farrugia M.D.
CEO, Mayo Clinic, Florida

"My father was a physician, and he was my inspiration to go into medicine,” says Dr Gianrico Farrugia, CEO of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Florida. “I saw how hard he worked, how much he enjoyed doing what he did, and how involved he was in social good; in fact, he started the blood bank in Malta. It was inspiring to see how a doctor could have such a big impact on people’s lives. In my fifth year of medical school in Malta, I met Dr Michael Camilleri, a gastroenterologist who had briefly returned to Malta from Mayo in Rochester, Minnesota. I was invited to interview there, and that’s how I ended up practicing medicine at Mayo Clinic.

“One of the diseases that I study is gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach doesn’t empty properly. It affects a lot of people, especially women – imagine the effect of feeling nauseated and sometimes vomiting all day would have on your life. So several years ago, I decided that I wanted to try to understand the molecular mechanism that underlies development of this disease. My laboratory began to study it, and now, many years later, we can completely reverse diabetic gastroparesis in the laboratory and we are moving to clinical studies with patients. To take a disease that had no therapy and get to a point where we can see several options for therapy for our patients is very exciting to me.”

One of the highlights of Dr Farrugia’s career was being asked to start the Mayo Clinic Centre for Individualized Medicine. “We take all the information we discover about our genes and bring that to impact patient care. So far, we’ve prevented at least 13,000 adverse drug reactions by choosing a different drug or dose based on the patient’s genome. We’re also discovering and diagnosing diseases for patients who had been searching for answers for years, and we’ve been able to help in cancer care by targeting tumours using genomics.

“One of the most satisfying parts of my job at Mayo Clinic is being able to assemble teams of experts who can care for patients with the most complex medical needs and give them hope and healing, and a new lease on life. Also, I am lucky enough to work with a number of really talented people and to mentor them and watch them succeed and grow, and contribute to health care. That is incredibly satisfying to me.”

Steve Cordina, M.D. Associate Professor of Neurology,
Neurosurgery and Radiology, Mobile, AL

Dr Steve Cordina, who grew up in Gozo, graduated medical school in 2001. Around this time, interventional neurology started taking form as a separate discipline. “I found myself very attracted to the possibility of the minimally-invasive treatments that this promised. Since there was no comparable training available locally, I chose to move to the US because it is at the forefront of medical research and training.”

He made headlines a few years ago for saving the life of an eight-month old baby who had an arterial malformation in her brain thanks to cutting-edge surgery, but the number of lives he has touched is countless. “One of my favourite cases involved a young woman who suffered a debilitating stroke. She was unable to speak and couldn’t move one side of her body. However, she improved to normal as soon as the treatment was completed. Another one that comes to mind is a patient who woke up from what was thought to be an irreversible coma. We restored blood flow to his brainstem by inserting a stent in his basilar artery at the back of the brain. All these procedures are performed through a small incision in the groin using catheters that reach to the brain via the blood vessels. These cases really make me appreciate the value of the work that my stellar team and I perform on a daily basis.”

One of Dr Cordina’s greatest joys is seeing his patients with their families after they have recovered. “It is rewarding to see that their quality of life has improved and that they are able to be well again.”
Dr Cordina says it is an exciting time to be an interventional neurologist. “X-ray technology has advanced to the point where now we can see the tiniest of blood vessels rendered in 3-D. There are also many more options in the treatment of brain vascular disorders using minimally invasive techniques than were available even five years ago, shortening treatment and recovery time. I have every reason to believe that the pace of change and promise in this field of medicine is going to keep accelerating.”

Dr Gerhardt Attard, M.D.
Head of Treatment Resistance Lab at The Institute of Cancer Research, London

Getting good grades at A-level inspired Dr Gerhardt Attard to study medicine, but he was impelled towards cancer research after his grandfather died of colorectal cancer when he was still a junior doctor. “Research opportunities in the UK are greater, and are at the very cutting-edge. I moved here in 2003 to develop my research and specialisation skills to the best possible use of my abilities,” he says.

A few years ago, Dr Attard was interviewed by the New Scientist about abiraterone and how it can be used to treat prostate cancer. What progress has been made since then? “Abiraterone is now routinely used for men with advanced prostate cancer and improves the lives of hundreds of thousands of men every year. While it does not work for everyone and often stops working after one-to-two years, my group at The Institute of Cancer Research in London has recently developed a blood test that identifies patients for whom the drug will not work, which allows us to identify the cause of resistance and change, and improve treatment through other methods.”

Dr Attard says that while it’s difficult when experiments fail or an idea doesn’t work out, he loves the thrill of making a new discovery which he knows will help and improve the lives of thousands of patients. “One of the highlights of my work here was being awarded a clinician scientist fellowship by Cancer Research UK. It’s a highly competitive field, and fewer than five fellowships are awarded every year. Being awarded this fellowship supported my group and I for five years, allowing us to continue with our work.”

This feature originally appeared on Style on Sunday magazine. View the online version here.


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