Biotechnology Studies: Innovative and Progressive
Modern research on cancer treatment, genetics, renewable resources, food production – these are just a few areas of many where biotechnology is applied: the fastest-growing industry field in the world. Lithuanian scientists are also using the most advanced technologies in this field: Vytautas Magnus University (VMU) is at the forefront of biomedical research in the country and is constantly working on prominent international and national projects.
Biotechnologies are usually defined as all technologies based on biology: it is the utilization of biological processes for industrial and other purposes, including production, in order to improve the quality of people’s lives. The potential is truly wide-reaching: biotechnologies are used in disease treatment and diagnosis, stem cell research, extraction of medicinal substances, improvement of species of animals and plants etc.
The European Commission estimates that biotechnology is to become the driving force of the European economy within the first decades of the 21st century. During the economic crisis of 2008, it was the only industry field which experienced growth rather than decline. Today the sector has reached unseen heights: in 2015 the companies of this field earned almost 63 billion euros, surpassing the 50 billion that was netted in 2014.
“As early as in 1980, people were saying that the 21st century will be the age of genetics, genetic engineering and biotechnology. Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel pointed out recently that biotechnology today brings in about 30 percent of the gross domestic product in numerous countries. Biotechnology is the future: it demands education but also provides great opportunities to create expensive and important products”, explained Professor Algimantas Paulauskas, the head of VMU Department of Biology at the Faculty of Natural Sciences, who has spent over 15 years actively researching parasites and the diseases they spread to animals and humans.
The demand for workers in biotechnology remains high. A survey of Lithuanian biotech companies conducted a few years ago revealed that the field’s development in our country is restrained by the shortage of its specialists. Employees are wanted at scientific research laboratories and numerous new biotech companies that are opening at a rapid rate. Experts are certain that in the long-term, their demand will increase even more.
Biotechnology Research at Cutting-Edge Labs
Vytautas Magnus University’s studies in the field of biomedical sciences were ranked 1st nationally among all Lithuanian universities in the international evaluation initiated last year by the Research and Higher Education Monitoring and Analysis Centre (MOSTA). The experts cited VMU Faculty of Natural Sciences as a strong national figure that is successfully establishing itself in the international sphere as well. In this year’s publication “Reitingai”, which evaluates Lithuanian universities, VMU was ranked 2nd in overall research of all scientific fields.
Undoubtedly, these positive evaluations of VMU activities were influenced by the recently renewed laboratories, where students and scientists are provided first-class conditions and the latest, the most innovative equipment, especially for cell culture. “VMU has been working on cell culture for over 12 years. The university’s Cell Culture Lab was the first one of its kind in Kaunas. We put in a lot of effort: I can guarantee that our lab is one of the strongest and the most capable in this field”, assured Professor Gintautas Saulis, the head of the VMU Biotechnology Study Programme Group.
In the laboratories, scientists study various subjects and conduct research related to cancer treatment, genetic therapy and other areas. A lot of focus is given to electroporation – a technology that is widely used in medicine. Other objects of examination include citotoxity of various compounds and anticancer effects. Students are offered the possibility to try in vitro (artificial) cultivation of cells of animal origin, to work in a sterile environment and manipulate cells.
According to Prof. Saulis, biotechnology studies provide a qualification that is in demand around the world and makes it possible to find work in a wide number of countries. “Laboratories compete over young postdoctoral trainees in Italy, Germany, Slovenia and elsewhere. Their demand is quite high, but you need the qualification”, the scientist explained. There are plenty of biotech career and business opportunities in Lithuania as well: most of the graduates of this field get employed successfully.
Startling Discovery in Biotechnology: Carcinogens are Destroyed by Fungi
Over the recent years, biotechnology scientists have made numerous significant discoveries: they have successfully utilised carcinogen-eradicating fungi, accelerated diagnostics of tick borne diseases, and even replaced harmful preservatives with medicinal plants as additives in food products.
The finding that cancer-causing substances are destroyed by wood-decay fungus growing in Lithuania is already hailed as a discovery of historical significance. Vytautas Magnus University’s scientists together with partners from Italy and Lithuania used the fungi as an efective method to ecologically eradicate rotten and damaged wooden railroad ties. For a long time, the ties were being impregnated with creosote and other materials that had strong carcinogens: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
“This is a global problem: annually, about 3 million tonnes of waste are accumulated in the world and about 20 thousand tonnes in Lithuania. They can be recovered with high-temperature burning, but it is too expensive. We applied bioremediation, i.e. the use of biological measures in order to divide harmful compounds until they are less harmful or completely harmless. For this, we used the wood-decay fungi: they extricate subcellular ferments which break down natural polymers, such as cellulosis or lignins. The carcinogens of railroad ties have a similar structure, so the fungi break them down as well”, explained Professor of VMU Dept. of Biology Audrius Sigitas Maruška, the head of the project dedicated to this discovery.
After the fungi break down the waste of the railroad ties and diminish the amount of harmful materials, the resulting compost is used in plant cultivation: the plants continue and finish the breakdown process with the root bacteria.
Lusher and More Productive Plants
Another notable biotech project was conducted by the researchers of VMU Faculty of Natural Sciences, the VMU Kaunas Botanical Garden and the Institute of Botany under the Nature Research Centre. Its aim was to improve the quality of medicinal plants by turning them into polyploids: vegetable-like plants that are lusher and more productive.
“We successfully created several plants, one of which is still grown in the VMU Kaunas Botanical Garden: the anise hyssop, which accumulates essential oils. The new plant, created through biotechnology, more rapidly accumulates anticancer compounds that have antioxidant properties. The original plant accumulates the greatest amount of these compounds only just before the autumn, while this new one is more productive. If the climate allows, you can harvest it several times instead of once”, Prof. Audrius Sigitas Maruška said.
The professor elaborated that the extraction of compounds from plants is a very innovative field thanks to biotechnology, as it brings a lot of practical benefits: one plant may contain hundreds of compounds and materials, some of which may be useful. After their successful extraction, valuable products for business, medicine and other fields may be developed.
“Considering the climate and the possibilities for unconventional agriculture, there are wide-reaching possibilities to do business and produce plant-based preparations which provide a lot of added value in the application of knowledge. Companies may use the extracted compounds as material, for instance, in medicine production”, Prof. Maruška claimed.
Electrospray: 1,000 Times More Effective Than Chemotherapy
Biotechnologies are also effectively utilised in yet another field: the transfering of substances into and out of cells. At Vytautas Magnus University, this type of activity is the focus of the Research Cluster on Medicine and Genetic Transfer, which is headed by Professor Saulius Šatkauskas.
Currently the professor and other scientists from VMU and several Swiss universities are developing an innovative cancer treatment method: electrospray, which enables destruction of cancerous cells in about a thousand times smaller doses than today’s chemotherapy.
One of the key advantages of this method is that it makes it possible for chemotherapy drugs to impact only the cancerous cells and precisely remove the tumours that are blocking the airways. Electrospray divides the chemotherapeutic drug into small drops which are then accelerated directed towards cancerous cells. It is hoped that over the next several years, clinics will start using this revolutionary technology.
Paulius Ruzgys, a doctoral student at Vytautas Magnus University and one of electrospray’s developers, says that this technology may also be used not only in cancer treatment but also advanced genetic therapy-based treatment of lung diseases.
“Genetic therapy is the introduction of a genetic substance into a cell for therapeutic purposes, in order to treat genetic disorders and congenital or acquired diseases. It can also provide a cell with new functions. After successful development, this method could be utilised in the treatment of other diseases as well”, Ruzgys highlighted.