Being part of a network

26. June
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«If you do not know what others are doing, then you will be building a bicycle in your shed while your neighbour is already riding a motorcycle»

This is a comparison used by Jānis Ločs, the Director of Riga Technical University (RTU) Institute of General Chemical Technology, leading researcher and project manager of the Baltic Biomaterials Centre of Excellence (BBCE), explaining why there has to be a great focus on international collaboration and creation of a network of professionals in science. He is a board member of the Scandinavian Society of Biomaterials and works at the European Society of Biomaterials Young Scientist Forum, therefore his words about the benefits of networking have a definite weight to them.

Printing of spare parts

Research and work on development of biomaterials to replace damaged human tissue and organs, such as bone tissue, has already been successfully happening for years at RTU. Working together with Riga Stradiņš University (RSU), synthetic biomaterials that grow bone are experimentally being used in dentistry, maxillofacial surgery, but in collaboration with Riga 2nd Hospital, studies are being carried out on osteoporotic bone strengthening in the event of fractures in which materials developed by the RTU are being used for surgical treatment of large bone fractures. Putting  materials to new use is also being planned in collaboration with Trauma and Orthopaedic Hospital. J. Ločs makes a comparison «sugar does not have just one function — to sweeten tea. There are other functions and, quite possibly, some of them might be much more valuable than sweetening tea.» Therefore, in cooperation with the Trauma and Orthopaedic Hospital, a solution could be sought for the use of biomaterials in situations where an implant is needed, for example, a hip prosthesis has been replaced and there is an inflammation, an unfavourable environment. Rūdolfs Cimdiņš Riga Biomaterials Innovation and Development Centre, which forms part of Institute of General Chemical Technology have developed various compositions and uses of biomaterials, including complex biodegradable materials with medication supplying properties. They provide a local supply of medications, such as antibiotics, after manipulations. It is a trend of biomaterial research and development not only in Latvia, says J. Ločs and mentions a few other topicalities. «Medicalsciences and biology are gaining more and more understanding about how cells «communicate» with one another, giving each other signals. The materials that we are developing act as a foundation for tiny little molecules that can be sown upon them to tell other cells where to come. What makes it complicated is the fact that each organism reacts to communication differently. The question is — how to control, how to predict the cells’ response,» he says. It is hard for material scientists to deal with these challenges on their own, therefore research is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.

Another topicality — 3D printing of biomaterials. This area is developing, although it is limited by the European Union (EU) regulations on materials that can be used. There is technology available on the market for printing metal products, but metal remains in the body for life, it does not degrade. There is huge potential to develop degradable materials. The question is though — how to keep 3D printed human spare parts sterile. There is also a question of what kind of ink to use. RTU scientists alongside their foreign partners are working on the composition of the ink, the focus is on hyaluronic acid.

Side by side, not behind

J. Ločs does not hide that Latvia is currently somewhat lagging behind Europe in researching and using 3D printing to develop biomaterials, which is due to the limited funds. To achieve a higher standing the plan is to purchase a 3D printer and to send the new specialists to gain experience from foreign partners.

J. Ločs is currently managing an international project for the Baltic Biomaterials Centre of Excellence (BBCE). The founding principles of the BBCE are emphasis on cooperation and exchange of knowledge with local and international partners, and the industry by pooling the competencies and developing the industry of biomaterials. The Baltic Biomaterials Centre of Excellence is a research project funded by the EU Horizon 2020. There is an international team of scientists involved in the project — representatives from AO Research Institute Davos, Switzerland, Institute of Biomaterials of Friedrich-Alexander Erlangen-Nürnberg University, Germany, RTU›s Rūdolfs Cimdiņš Riga Biomaterials Innovation and Development Centre, Riga Stradiņš University (RSU), RSU’s Institute of Stomatology and the Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis. EU funding provided to the centres of excellence is not for research but for support, for example, to give them opportunity to attract international post- PhD and PhD students and being able to offer them a competitive salary. «Currently, international researchers rarely come to Latvia to gain work experience. If we had the financial means, we would be able to advertise a position with a competitive salary internationally. It would be an exchange of knowledge — we would learn from the international researcher, he or she would learn from us. After two or three years, when the researcher leaves, we would offer the post to somebody else. Perhaps, ten years later this scientist will become a dean at Oxford University and will remember their experience in Latvia, it will be mentioned in their CV. It would make us more recognisable internationally and would let us form a network of agents. This philosophy is much more widespread abroad,» says J. Ločs. Besides, welcoming international researchers regularly would also widen the network of specialists who are competent in biotechnologies, and possibly, make Latvia an interesting market for investors, where a biomaterial plant could also be built.

By learning from the experience of colleagues and co-workers, it is possible not to repeat the mistakes that they have previously made and move forward faster. According to statistics we are working at lower efficiency; this is also due to the fact that we do not tell others what and how to do to find the solution faster. In order to change this, we are hoping to create electronic student workbooks that will accumulate information on the progress of the research and will enable other researchers to use it. «After graduating students will have kept notes on their Bachelor and Master’s theses, but they are difficult to read. Theses itself is polished work, but the ground work is not reflected there, their note books should have complete information,» the researcher says. To be able to exchange knowledge it is also valuable to attend various seminars, conferences.

Affects even more

Due to several reasons implant technologies and methods is a growing market: the world’s population is growing, life expectancy is increasing, therefore there is a need for a fulfilled life at the older age; at the same time there is more financial stability and increased availability of medical technologies. Meanwhile, people are diagnosed with various illnesses at a much younger age, for example, osteoporosis, heart attack, much younger people are given hip endoprosthesis. Research shows — the younger the patient, the sooner the implant wears out. This is where another area of research opens up — it is complicated to replace biomaterial implants that have grown onto the body.

Since life expectancy is increasing and population in both Latvia and Europe is getting older, early diagnosis of various diseases and therapy is very important. «Cancer and dementia at the moment are the most acute diseases as they are connected to old age. Cancer is largely an age-related disease, of course, it can not be applied to all types of cancer, but certainly to many. In the spring I came back from America where I attended the association for cancer research meeting. Around fifteen years ago, it was a fairly small meeting; this year around 20 thousand registered participants gathered at a major conference centre in Chicago,» Alvis Brāzma, the leading researcher at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the head of gene expression department at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), points out a research topicality. EMBL is Europe’s leading life sciences laboratory, an intergovernmental organisation with more than 80 independent research groups. One of EMBL’s goals is to integrate European life sciences by providing researchers and students with opportunities to practice research. Latvia’s participation in EMBL would increase the opportunities for Latvian PhD students to study in this laboratory, as well as for Latvian scientists to participate in top-level international research, including opportunities to apply for grants to the European Research Council. Being a part of EMBL would also mean an opportunity to participate at the laboratory board meetings, enabling a better understanding of current research trends and potential cooperation, he says. Of course, there is a risk that a Latvian student or a scientist involved in EMBL studies would not return back home straight away, but even staying outside of Latvia, they would form a network of scientists, which has a major impact in the development of science, attracting funding and exchanging knowledge. «The only way to get this information and experience is to find one’s way into the European scientific elite circles,» he believes. Participation in international research organisations should be looked at also from the angle of security strengthening, emphasises A. Brāzma. Namely, connections with international science organisations will strengthen the image of the Latvian science community, help to gain contacts at different levels and in different societies. At the moment, though, network of Latvian and Latvian origin scientists is still thin and there is still lots to be done in order for «Latvia to integrate more deeply into European science».

«For physicists it is important to be members of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) — an organisation where Latvia is about to become involved; similarly, for biologists and medics involvement in EMBL is important,» says A. Brāzma, calling for consideration of Latvia’s membership in this or related organisations. Since 2015, Lithuania is a potential member state — a status which allows them access to laboratory services and programs, as well as to observe laboratory board meetings. Estonia, in turn, is a member of the European Life Sciences Infrastructure for Biological Information ELIXIR. As A. Brāzma says, «it is easier to get involved in the international bioinformatics circle than it is with other sectors, because no major investment is required. Bioinformatics is more of a bit and byte rather than an atom and molecule world. Therefore you don’t need much more than a computer and internet».

Not to let a cell commit suicide

In life sciences, bioinformatic methods and data analysis is taking on a more important role. One of the branches of the EBI is cancer genome research to understand what changes in cancer genomes take place, how to classify them, what the potential molecular mechanisms are that lead from the changes in the genome to cancer, and how to potentially use this knowledge in therapy, A. Brāzma explains. «At the bottom of oncological diseases is the unwillingness of cells to submit to the body’s control. They are no longer controllable and start growing, «working» in their own favour. In all multicellular organisms, including humans, there are various mechanisms that cause cells to, so to speak, commit suicide, when attempting to go out of control due to genome mutation. And there are also different ways in which cells try to avoid these mechanisms. The idea of molecular cancer research is to understand what the potential paths are that cells choose to avoid suicide and how to block them,» explains A. Brāzma using simple comparisons. He is confident that in the next ten to fifteen years, 80—90 % of cancer types will be treatable, it will, probably, remain a chronic disease, but it will not be lethal and patients’ quality of life will not suffer as much.

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26. June at 16:32

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