05 February 2009

Nanobiotechnology at St. Petersburg Polytechnic University

A place where the creative ambitions of scientists can be realized in the "warm palm" of the stateThe director of the Nanobiotechnology Center being created at SPbPU, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, talks about the research that is supposed to be carried out on its basis.

Moreover, at such a level that the country's leadership would not consider the waste of "nanodeneg" meaningless.

Please tell us what kind of research will be conducted at your Center?— In the last two years in 

The Polytechnic University is successfully implementing an innovative project, for which large budget funds have been allocated. A significant part of them was used to create a new direction for the Polytechnic — nanobiotechnological.

Basic equipment, without which work in this direction is impossible, is very expensive. The cost of the research complex acquired within the framework of this project is more than 135 million rubles, of which 110 million are budgetary funds and about 25 million are attracted from extra-budgetary sources.

Two expensive devices are already in the commissioning mode - the NMR 700 spectrometer and the ion—cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer with Fourier transform. The parameters of both devices correspond to the world level. By today's standards, our mass spectrometer has the highest resolution, so knowledge about the composition of the studied complex can be obtained with its help with phenomenal accuracy. At the same time, using this device it is quite difficult to determine the structure of the compound, especially if we are talking about large molecular complexes, which are now actively working in biotechnology, medicine, pharmaceuticals, etc. To solve such a problem, the nuclear magnetic resonance method is practically indispensable. It seems to us that the complementarity of these two installations is optimal. Based on the information obtained with their help, it is possible to predict the properties of nanoscale biological complexes.

The study of the properties of biocomplexes in our Center is planned to be carried out by traditional methods in vitro, as well as in vivo — using the most modern diagnostic method combining the possibilities of passive observation of the behavior of objects in the studied environment and active controlled exposure to them.

These capabilities are provided by a complex known as laser tweezers. It allows you to manipulate an object in a liquid medium (in biology, all processes occur in a liquid) at the nanoscale level from 100 nanometers to one micrometer. Knowing the composition, structure and partially properties of what we manipulate, it will be possible to control the objects that are inside the cell, determine its life and functioning, and try to study their properties in detail. Such equipment is not mass-produced, but there are separate groups in the world that create such machines and work on them. One of these laser tweezers was built abroad by our compatriot, a member of the American Biophysical Society, Fazoil Ataullakhanov. He will lead the assembly of the device in our Center.

The machine he built in America records the movements of objects with an accuracy of one or two nanometers. Ours will give a resolution of 0.1—0.2 nanometers, and with its help it will be possible to monitor the movements of proteins, other biological molecules and measure the force with which they interact. But this machine needs a lot of additional equipment, as well as technology to create a target. Before starting to work with laser tweezers, it is necessary to obtain preliminary knowledge about the objects that we are going to explore with the help of our other two installations. After that, you will get a complete cycle.

In order for these technologies to work, it is necessary to have ideal conditions for conducting experiments involving the measurement of nanoscale movements of nanoobjects and the forces of interaction between them at the level of fractions of a nanometer. Therefore, in the building where our Center is located, complex construction work was carried out to create an untied massive foundation installed on special "black" sand, a special silent air conditioning system was created, etc. The Polytechnic University has spent a lot of effort and money to make all this possible.

— In which areas of biotechnology will you conduct research?— The main one will be living systems, or life science (this original term seems to me more successful), including biology, medicine, pharmacology, ecology, etc.

But in general it is difficult to imagine all the directions in which you can frolic with such equipment.

— Are there similar research centers in St. Petersburg or other cities?— Our Center is unique.

It was created from scratch and using the most advanced technologies. Here, everything you do must simply correspond to the level of publications in the journal Nature or Science.

For example, at the A. F. Ioffe Institute of Physics and Technology, which, in fact, is my home, there are wonderful traditions, research directions, but there was no opportunity to take and do everything from scratch. We have a very close relationship with Phystech (at the same time I am also the deputy director of the Center for Collective Use "Materials Science and Diagnostics in Advanced Technologies" on its basis) and everything that concerns, for example, high-resolution electron microscopy, we will do on its equipment. Director of the CCP Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences Semyon Konnikov considers the activities of our Center in Polytech as part of our great work together. There is no doubt that all the resources of the CCP, including its material base, methods, etc., will complement our efforts in the mode of the deepest cooperation.

Cooperation with leading, from my point of view, scientific organizations that exist in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, very important for us.

Are there already specific customers and other partners besides Phystech?— We are negotiating with a variety of groups that deal with current issues.

Research should correspond to the level that has already been achieved in the West. We managed to have a preliminary conversation with university laboratories in France (University of Toulouse), Portugal (University of Lisbon), USA (Universities of Colorado and San Francisco) and some others. They will not be customers, but want to work in collaboration, receiving funding either under the European FP 7 program or the American National Institutes of Health.

The main customer will be the Ministry of Education and Science. We expect that in a year the Rusnano Group of Companies will also pay attention to us.

Will our Ministry of Health finance you?— In my opinion, our research program should be under the joint patronage of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health and the Russian Academy of Sciences.

But these plans are still in their infancy, there is no direct communication with the Ministry of Health yet.

—Are you planning to attract private investment?— We will be extremely careful with private investments: only on terms that suit us.

If something positive, a product, is obtained as a result of research funded by private capital, a difficult question arises: how to divide intellectual property. Private traders, as a rule, believe: "What we paid for is all ours." We are not satisfied with this. Therefore, each time the proposals of private investors will be carefully discussed, and we will try to avoid a stereotype in the approach.

Will the Center be related to education?— Classical courses are taught at the Polytechnic University in many areas complementary to the technologies that will be developed at our Center, but a number of new courses need to be created.

This applies to mass spectrometry, NMR spectroscopy, and a special course on technologies using optical trap methods (laser tweezers) in biology, and possibly some others. Our students and postgraduates will master the methods of working with biological objects using NMR spectroscopy on the basis of the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences in the department of the leading specialist in our country, Professor Alexander Arsenyev, who, according to a preliminary agreement, will lead this area of research in our Center. Professor Fazoil Ataullakhanov teaches a course on laser tweezers at Moscow State University, and we will read it in Polytech. Two guys are already on their way to Moscow. They will listen to his lectures at Moscow State University.

The Polytechnic University has a department of biophysics, where there is an annual enrollment of students: there were 12 people, now there will be 25. We have agreed with biophysicists on a plan of joint work, courses that will be additionally taught at the department. We will also work with the Department of Ecology, maybe we will write a separate course, or environmental students will attend joint special courses with biophysicists. There will be a collaboration with the Department of Mechanics, because everything related to movement inside the cell can be described by the laws of mechanics, and the specialists of this department have shown a deep interest in working together.

It is supposed to implement all this in the form of special courses on biotechnology, therefore, students will work in our Center, starting from the bachelor's and master's levels. So far, only introductory programs are planned for junior students.

That is, the goal is not to train graduates in the specialties "nanotechnology", "nanobiotechnology"?— The words about nanotechnology are general.

While these technologies are not in a finished form, therefore, we will not train specialists in a narrow specialization.

How do you feel about messages from The United States and other countries about the numerous discoveries that are being made there in the field of nanotechnology? It follows from them that the production of DNA computers and a huge number of other fantastic things is actually ready.— It is difficult to judge everything, because when such statements are made publicly, it is usually PR.

My lab had a seven-year contract with the General Electric Research Center, so I'm in I have been to America often, talked with foreign colleagues and continue to maintain contacts with them. It seems to me that what is widely and publicly announced is interesting for the philistine environment, but it is hardly interesting for a specialist. Everything that is really being done is classified until it turns into a final product. There is no access to such discoveries. From my point of view, a DNA computer is not serious, although the idea itself is extremely attractive.

The same as in In Russia, there are very strong groups in the West that receive brilliant scientific results. Most of them are in America, in Europe — less. But from the point of view of introduction into industry, there are no results overseas yet.

— To what extent do we fit into the world scientific environment today, can we compete with the West?— We have missed a lot, and now we are uncompetitive.

I think that the funds that are thrown at science through the nano channel will increase the activity of Russian scientists. But if everything ends negatively (which is very likely), then the country's leadership may consider spending money meaningless, and the consequences of this will be disastrous for science and for the country as a whole.

I have a friend — a wonderful German scientist Wolfgang Kretchmer. He was a real contender for the Nobel Prize for the discovery of a new form of carbon — the fullerene molecule. But as it sometimes happens, the prize went to the Americans. He once said in a private conversation that as a result of Hitler's coming to power and the subsequent war, the scientific environment in Germany suffered irreparable losses and still the level of their science cannot be restored. Note that this was said by a German scientist of the highest class, whose work is cited in almost all publications related to the research of nanocarbon compounds.

Who better than him to assess the situation in science in his country. The destruction of the scientific environment is happening quickly, and the restoration, as can be seen from the example of Germany, requires a huge amount of time, on the scale of human life.

During the years of perestroika-skirmish, too many active scientists either went abroad, or, unable to withstand a miserable existence and a sense of uselessness in their country, left the profession. We have lost a gigantic potential! In terms of the level of destruction of the scientific sphere, this can definitely be compared with what happened in Germany in the forties. To revive this environment, we need a long, painstaking and consistent work without cavalry attacks and companionship.

If we talk about our Center, I hope that it can become one of those places where the creative ambitions of scientists will be realized in the "warm palm" of the state.

Recorded by Yuri Nikiforov, for STRF.ru 

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