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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 46 - August 2005    
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LITHUANIA
Title  The Vilnius hub

Vilnius, the capital of lithuania, has more than one scientific string to its bow. rtd info looks at the city’s various research centres – its laboratories and centres of excellence, dynamic university, and city-centre r&d park – and more particularly at its work in the field of biotechnologies and materials physics.

Clethrionomys glareolus, a rodent that can transmit the hantavirus to man. The Hantavirus project is currently studying a vaccine that could combat its effects.
Clethrionomys glareolus, a rodent that can transmit the hantavirus to man. The Hantavirus project is currently studying a vaccine that could combat its effects.
Founded 30 years ago, the Institute of Biotechnology started its work at a time when the biotechnologies in the USSR were developing in isolation from the rest of the international scientific community. During the 1970s and ‘80s, Soviet researchers were developing the technical bases of genetic engineering at the same time as their colleagues in Europe and North America were working in the same field. The Vilnius Institute played an important role during that period in supplying the latter with restriction enzymes – the molecular scissors that make it possible to break down DNA into specific fragments.

Following independence, in 1991, these activities were privatised and four institutes of biotechnology were founded, including UAB Fermentas which now makes its collection of 300 restriction enzymes available in around 45 countries. The institute has moved its research in two directions: the fundamental study of the molecular mechanisms of DNA enzymatic splitting, and the manufacture of recombining proteins for medical applications. 

Hantavirus and hepatitis
Two European research projects to which the institute contributed effectively illustrate the vast applications of this technology, the principle of which is to assemble a number of protein fragments originating in different organisms. The first is the Hantavirus(1) project that sought to develop a vaccine against the hantaviruses that are endemic in a number of regions in eastern Europe and that can be the cause of haemorrhagic fevers. The approach adopted was to describe, in two hantavirus strains, proteins that are in themselves able to trigger the human immune response, as is the practice for vaccines against hepatitis. In fact, hepatitis B was the subject of the second project, entitled Hepatitis(2). The aim in this case was not to develop a vaccine but a treatment. One of the difficulties in treating this illness is that the proteins in the shell that encases the virus – known as the capsid – are recognised by the immune system but do not trigger the production of antibodies to neutralise them. Hence, the idea is to construct a recombining protein consisting of immunogenic fragments of the viral capsid proteins and protein fragments that activate lymphocytes, the cells that produce antibodies.

Hantavirus and Hepatitis are two of five projects (of the nine submitted) in which the Institute of Biotechnology participated under the Fifth Framework Programme. Ausra Vektariene, director of Lithuanian participation in the Europe Life programme, believes that this very high success rate shows the importance of biotechnological potential. “After years of weak participation in European research, in 2001 Lithuania doubled the number of projects submitted to the EU. Even more encouraging, it tripled its success rate,” stresses Juras Ulbikas, national coordinator of the Fifth Framework Programme for Latvia. 

From semiconductors to nanotechnologies
Generation of models produced by electronic chaotic oscillators for studies of non-linear dynamics. (Institute of Physics, Vilnius).
Generation of models produced by electronic chaotic oscillators for studies of non-linear dynamics. (Institute of Physics, Vilnius).
Founded in 1967, the Semiconductor Physics Institute (IP) was formerly a recognised centre for theoretical research on semiconductors managed by the Academy of Sciences. In 1991, the laboratory became a public research institute and broadened its research. Today, it is one of the leading lights of Lithuanian science.

In addition to its initial speciality, the institute is also active in the field of materials science and nanotechnologies. Employing 290 people, including 123 researchers, it was awarded the label of European centre of excellence in the framework of the Prama(3) project which organises financing for international trade and the training of young researchers. The Vilnius IP is twinned with the Barcelona Institute of Material Science, the Rome Institute for Studies of Nanostructured Materials and the Stockholm Royal Institute of Technology.

Between 1999 and 2002, the IP and Vilnius University also participated in the European Multimetox(4) project devoted to the study of the technological applications of magneto-electronic devices. Nine research institutes and four companies were party to this project that symbolises the new direction taken by research at the IP which is now more focused on technological applications. Together with two other Vilnius laboratories – the Institute of Physics and the Institute of Theoretical Physics and Astronomy – the IP was the originator of the Vilnius Science and Technology Park. With its city-centre location, this accommodates and supports about 30 companies active in the fields of laser technology, electronics and telecommunications. The IP is also the national reference centre for metrology.   

European co-operation, the exploitation of research results, the development of training… the changes at the IP symbolise reforms in the Lithuanian research system as a whole. 

(1) Bivalent hantavirus vaccine for Europe: different approaches and evaluation of animal models.
(2) Combined immune and gene therapy for chronic hepatitis.
(3) Processing Research and Application of Advanced Materials
(4) Metal oxide multilayers obtained by cost-effective new chemical vapor deposition technologies for magnetoelectronic microsystems and nanotechnologies.

    
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