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A Team of Stem Cell Biology Specialists Will Extend the Research Achievements of Medical University - Varna

Human resources are the key element in scientific progress. One of the leading funding schemes of the European Commission for supporting the human resources in the European Research Area (ERA), are the ERA Chair competitions. Medical University - Varna (MU - Varna) is the first Bulgarian institution to win the ERA Chair Competition. This occurred during the last competition session (2018/2019), in competition with more than 100 project proposals submitted. Such contests have been held since 2015 and have funded the attraction of an outstanding researcher in a specific scientific area to the beneficiary organization. The project, entitled "TRANSTEM - ERA Chair in Translation Stem Cell Biology", aims to create a new research direction at the Research Institute of MU-Varna (RIMU-Varna): a direction of stem cell biology. The project amounts to 2.5 million euros and lasts five years, starting in October 2019. This was announced at the press conference, which was held today at MU-Varna.


"There are different amounts of stem cells in each organ of our body. They are able to restore (regenerate) the mature cells in the respective organ. Through the TRANSTEM project, we aim to attract a specialist who will add up to and build on the existing human potential in the field of regeneration," said Prof. Anton Tonchev, Director of the Research Institute at the Varna Medical University. "We are going to look for a new colleague among outstanding specialists both in our country and abroad. The selected ERA Chair will come with his contacts, and through the project we are going to fund not only him but the entire team that he is about to create." Plenty of young scientists and researchers will also be involved in the project.

In order to win an ERA Chair competition, each candidate has to demonstrate human, managerial and financial potential in the relevant scientific field. Currently, there are three research teams at MU - Varna, whose field of research is stem cells in different organs. MU - Varna attracted Prof. Igor Resnick from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem three years ago. Prof. Resnick, who is the coordinator of the TRANSTEM project, is a bone marrow stem cell specialist. So far Prof. Resnick and his team at University Hospital "St. Marina" - Varna have performed more than 100 stem cell transplants, mainly in haematological diseases. In addition, a clinical trial for using bone marrow stem cells in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis has been initiated. Prof. Resnick said, "The project of Medical University - Varna will not only contribute to the development of the clinical aspects of stem cell application, which have already been implemented at University Hospital "St. Marina" - Varna in haematological diseases, but it will also give impetus to scientific research in this field of medicine, both in Bulgaria and in the region. Neither of the global leading transplant centres operates in isolation from experimental research laboratories, producing fundamental scientific results. This is the essence of modern medicine in its journey from art to science. That is why the constant research in this field is absolutely necessary for the modern development of medicine."

Another research team, headed by Prof. Christina Grupcheva, performed preserved human amniotic membrane transplantation in 2005, and has been working on the cultivation of patient's own and donor limbal stem cells since 2014. Thus, diseases that cause corneal blindness have been treated at MU-Varna. Over the last two years, more than 120 procedures have been performed, and the vision of many patients has been preserved. The project will contribute to the introduction of new methodologies for cultivation and search of new, more ergonomic carriers for the transplantation itself, as well as improve the visibility of the research projects being worked upon. "Tissue engineering based on limbal stem cells is the future of Ophthalmology," summarized Prof. Grucheva.


The third team is that of Prof. Anton Tonchev, a brain stem cell specialist. He and his colleagues are the pioneers in Bulgaria in this field of regenerative medicine. Even in adults, in certain areas of the brain, there are stem cells that are capable of forming new nerve cells. Due to the increasing number of diseases, causing nerve cell loss, there are high expectations concerning brain stem cells as they could open up new therapeutic horizons to Neurology and Psychiatry - in diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, etc. "Unlike bone marrow and ocular stem cells, the area of brain stem cells is still at an experimental level and has not been applied to the clinic," commented Prof. Tonchev. "However, the potential is really great, and the scope of diseases that potentially can be treated with such therapies is very broad. I expect a breakthrough in the clinical application of these cells over the next decade," he concluded.


EPA Chair is not an infrastructure project. This financial scheme does not invest in equipment, but in the creation of a team of specialists and its development through individual training, mobility, organization of conferences and scientific meetings, summer schools – practically, creating a network of specialists, working in a specific field, which will lead to a natural exchange of experience among them. The newly created team of ERA Chair and its associates will aim to increase the collaboration between the existing groups, dealing with stem cells at MU-Varna, to attract new funding, to initiate the creation of new interdisciplinary educational programmes. This will not only enhance the level of scientific research at MU-Varna, but will also broaden the existing educational horizons for the students at the University.