LITHUANIAN SCIENCE SUCCESS STORIES IN 2015Last year the Lithuanian scientists started designing the world‘s most powerful laser; they sold the gene editing technology upgraded by them; and the company manufacturing molecular biology products extended its operations and is getting ready for the production of next-generation drugs.
1 The world‘s most powerful laser. In 2018, a unique Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) to the tune of 850 million euros will come into operation in Europe. It is being designed by 40 science and business institutions including the Lithuanian ones. High power lasers will be installed in three East European states. It will become a site for interdisciplinary research using laser radiation and its generated secondary radiation. On 12 November 2015, Lithuania was visited by the then Director General of the ELI Prof. Wolfgang Sandner. He confirmed that the work was going according to plan and he greatly appreciated the contribution made by the Lithuanian scientists. The Lithuanian laser producer EKSPLA, together with the American company National Energetics, has won the contract worth over 30 million euros to manufacture and and introduce a high intensity laser system in the EU research complex ELI-Beamlines near Prague.
Says Kęstutis Jasiūnas, Director General of EKSPLA UAB: ‘We have won the contract jointly with a company from Texas. They have a technology that we will link up with ours and thus in Prague we will create the world‘s most powerful laser system with a power of 10 petawatts (10x1015 W) in one laser pulse. The Lithuanian company will produce some laser systems as well as high power electronics and power supply units. The system should be installed by the beginning of 2018‘. After 2018, a decision will be made as regards the location of the fourth ELI centre – the ELI-Ultra High Field Facility – whose aim is to reach the power of 200 petawatts. It might be called the CERN of light technologies. According to W. Sandner, such centres are not founded in waste land, while Lithuania is famous for its laser technology research and development. If the Lithuanian scientific community takes the initiative, there is a high probability that such a centre will be built in Lithuania; all the more so as all high peak power laser systems worldwide are based on the principle suggested by Prof. Algis Petras Piskarskas, Member of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, and his doctoral students.
2 A new method of gene editing. Several years ago the Science journal published a paper in which Danisco scientists involved in the research of bacteria used in the production of yoghurt and cheese described a new bacterial antiviral defense system called CRISPR. The scientists have found out that not all bacteria attacked by viruses perish. The surviving bacteria integrate a piece of the phage DNA into their own genome. If such a bacterium is invaded again, it uses the virus profile to fight against it by making small RNAs that target invading viruses and trigger viral DNA degradation.
The scientists of the Laboratory of Protein-DNA Interactions at the Vilnius University Institute of Biotechnology have been studying proteins proteins that cut DNA for many years. They have found dozens of such enzymes called restriction endonucleases that cut DNA at specific sites, however, it was difficult to engineer them to cut precisely at any desired sequence. By studying mechanism of the recently discovered CRISPR defense systems Vilnius University scientists have found that the Cas9 (CRISPR associated) protein is programmed by a small RNA molecule. By altering it, the Cas9 protein may be directed to any place in the genome. This finding leads to the development of new tools for precise genome editing. The Lithuanian scientists succeeded in perfecting the new method that aroused the interest of biotechnology companies worldwide.
Prof. Virginijus Šikšnys, Head of the Laboratory and Member of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences: ‘We have realized that a single Cas9 protein bound to a couple of small RNA molecules provides protection for bacteria against viruses by cutting viral DNA. The research that started by trying to understand how bacteria defend themselves against viruses at the end resulted in the development of novel tools for genome editing.‘
The Lithuanian scientists continue working with Cas9 and collaborate with the U.S. DuPont Pioneer Company that licensed the technology from Vilnius University. This technology is already applied in plant biology. Prof. V. Šikšnys, together with other independent researchers from the USA, France and Sweden, was awarded the 2016 Warren Alpert Foundation (U.S.) Prize for the most promising antivirus therapies.
Next-generation drugs. Among the world‘s most heavily invested research areas one can easily distinguish biomedical subjects: live cell reprogramming; nanosurgery using femtosecond (10-15s) lasers; cell engineering; pharmacogenomics; and personalised medicine. The Lithuanian scientists are not lagging behind these trends.
In 2015, the Thermo Fisher Scientific Baltics Company opened new state-of-the-art sterile production laboratories in Vilnius. The products manufactured in Lithuania using Dynabeads technology will be applied for developing new treatments of oncological diseases based on the reprogramming of individual patients‘ cells.
Dynabeads magnetic particles are used ex vivo for isolation, activation and proliferation of T-lymphocytes. This technology is already applied for the production of immunotherapeutic devices designed for the treatment of oncological diseases, HIV, and autoimmune disorders. CD3 and CD28 antibody-coupled Magnetic beads are used in over 30 different clinical studies. They permit reliable isolation of T-lymphocytes from the whole blood while bead-bound antibodies induce T-lymphocyte population to expand ex vivo, imitating natural processes. Therapeutic cells then are returned to a patient‘s blood.
Magnetic beads are produced at a branch of Thermo Fisher Scientific in Norway. In Vilnius these particles, in the course of complex biochemical processes, are coupled with CD3 and CD28 antibodies. The final product from Vilnius is being distributed to pharmaceutical companies and research centres worldwide.
The strategy for the spread of scientific knowledge is based on one of the essential requirements of the Academy’s mission: promoting the advantages of educated society and scientific knowledge on a regular basis. It is implemented by holding lectures, seminars, conferences, discussions of topical issues, displays, and other forms of activities. The modern communication methods make it possible to arrange those events in the academic community, the interdepartmental space, individual scientific and educational institutions, mass media, in Lithuania and abroad, and in joint national and foreign research teams.
Taking an active part in the dissemination of scientific knowledge are the Academy’s divisions with their societies and commissions, and the Palace of Scientists. These structural units cooperate between themselves as well as with other scientific institutions. The work is going on in several directions. The Academic Readings include the presentations and discussions of new scientific monographs, books, and publications. Scientific conferences on human health, national history, environmental preservation and other topical subjects are held, and the latest achievements in the humanities and the exact sciences are introduced. The discussions of the Law on Science and Studies, the Lithuanian State science policies and other socially important problems are held at the Seimas (Parliament). The Academy of Sciences collaborates with Lithuania’s municipalities. At their invitation, Academy members meet town specialists, industrialists, cultural and educational workers and present new developments in science and culture.
The Palace of Scientists is a cultural institution contributing to the intellectual enlightenment of the general public and especially of the younger generation with a view to promoting its contacts with the scientific community and its awareness of scientific and cultural issues. A lot of interest was generated by the project “The International Year of Astronomy” that, with the participation of the lecturers from the Institute of Theoretical Physics and Astronomy at Vilnius University, was held all over the country. The cycles of lectures “Science for Society”, “Professor and Their School”, and “Lithuania’s Millennium” are conducted on a permanent basis. The Palace’s salon of arts hosts famous cultural, scientific and social figures. Educational programs and excursions are organized, national holidays are marked, Midsummer’s Day is observed, and programs on manor house culture are under way. For many years, the Palace of Scientists has been carrying out purposeful and meaningful educational and cultural work, seeking closer contacts between science and society, and stimulating young people’s interest in scientific and artistic activities.
THE LAS COOPERATION PARTNERS
- Alytus City Municipality
- Anykščiai District Municipality
- Druskininkai Municipality
- Ignalina District Municipality
- Kaunas City Municipality
- Klaipėda City Municipality
- Panevėžys City Municipality
- Šilutė District Municipality
Institutions, research and educational centres:
- Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology
- Association INFOBALT
- Bank of Lithuania
- Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore
- Institute of the Lithuanian Language
- Lithuanian Business Confederation
- Lithuanian Culture Research Institute
- Lithuanian Institute of History
- Lithuanian Laser Association
- Lithuanian Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry
- Lithuanian Social Research Centre
- Ministry of Health of The Republic of Lithuania
- Ministry of Social Security and Labour of the Republic of Lithuania
- National Student Academy
- Public institution Lithuanian Energy Museum
- State Research Institute Centre for Innovative Medicine
- State Research Institute Centre for Physical Sciences and Technology
- State Research Institute Nature Research Centre