We are talking with Prof. Grupcheva, Vice-Rector for Innovations and Translational Medicine and one of the leaders of the working group for the establishment of a Research Institute at Medical University - Varna.
Prof. Grupcheva, a Research Institute was established at MU-Varna a few days ago (Decision of the Council of Ministers - State Gazette, issue 31,2016, effective as of 19.04.2016). What is the role of this unit in the structure of MU-Varna?
I would like to start by saying that medical universities are a unique research structure because they combine medical, scientific and training activities. Our new Research Institute has been created in response to the need to bring together the existing scientific potential and the infrastructure at the University. This will inevitably give an impetus to the research and development activities at the University and will harmonize the process of organizing and conducting large-scale research projects.
MU-Varna has been a preferred partner in numerous non-interventional and interventional studies in the field of clinical medicine and public health. For example, at present, 92 clinical trials have been conducted at one of our clinical bases St. Marina University Hospital EAD - Varna. Aiming at harmonization with the European legislation, we try to optimize our activities in this field through an internal reorganization. During 2016-2019, it is expected the regulations for conducting clinical trials to be altered, as well as more precise requirements for partner research organizations and pharmaceutical companies to be established. This reorganization will lead to a growth between 10-15% or about 60 new clinical trials annually. It is intended Phase III and IV trials, investigating therapies for socially significant and rare diseases, to be predominant. The main principles we strive to pursue in conducting clinical trials are correctness, professionalism, teamwork and justice in the use of the scientific and material benefits derived from them. Medical University - Varna has managed to turn the increase in business investments in R&D into its competitive advantage and to use it effectively as a tool for enhancing its research capacity.
546 scientists have been working at Medical University - Varna, most of whom are clinicians, and this research diversification is a prerequisite for Translational Medicine in action. The expertise of these professionals has been proved over time, our scientists and excellent clinicians have been recognized not only in Bulgaria but also in Europe. The Research Institute will unite this huge potential of experts, excellent research facilities and the demand of industry and will become an incubator for science, but not just for theoretical knowledge and useless experiments but science which is thoroughly related to practice, which is the essence of the concept of "Translational Medicine".
You've mentioned the impressive number of 546 researchers. However, could you be more specific about the essence of their activities?
As I mentioned, these are clinicians, including dental doctors, pharmacists, public health specialists and experts in various fundamental sciences who have been working together as a well-oiled machine. The teams consist of young enthusiastic people and we are proud to say that some of them are our students and others – Bulgarian specialists who have returned from various universities in the world to join us. We have leading guest experts, some of whom are or will be a part of our team for a period of 1 to 3 years. Each of these 546 specialists has accomplished some kind of training qualification in Europe or in other parts of the world, which provides us with an optimal international network of leading institutions in each field of medical science and public health. In addition to the world experts and all European universities in our scientific fields, we have memorandums of cooperation with institutions from the five continents, and we participate not only as partners but also as leaders. Despite the large number of scientists and their diverse interests, our structure operates as a single organism and has clear and well-defined scientific priorities. They can be found on the Internet website, but I would like to highlight one of the priorities in which we have significant scientific achievements and that is food and nutrition. Our scientific potential in this area is exactly due to the integration of fundamental science and direct clinical practice.
Anyway, how do you manage to retain your personnel, everybody in Bulgaria complains of lack of human resources?
This is one of our greatest strengths since our personnel is our most valuable asset. This is the asset with the longest life, and we managed to create a system for its retention and development a long time ago. The good remuneration of human resources is an investment, not an expense. Of course, people of science are inspired and morally satisfied with their achievements, but ensuring their quality of life is of institutional interest. In order to work effectively each scientist should be in optimal physiological conditions and in a good working environment. Only thus, good ideas and motivation for their implementation could be conceived. Once again, our competitive advantage is the fact that our scientists do not make theoretical science, on the contrary, they are dealing with projects that have direct practical implementation, which is a source of foreign investment. Over the last four years, our University has attracted resources from various organizations and funds amounting to 13 million Lev. Our policy is to be an open system, but we have rules and priorities, the most important of which is Bulgaria to rightfully take its place in the scientific map of Europe rather than being proud of Bulgarian specialists working in teams of institutions abroad.
You have mentioned "working environment", what specifically do you mean?
We cannot have science without infrastructure, and over the last four years, scores of modernizations of the University facilities have been carried out, including the construction of new buildings such as the Faculty of Pharmacy. This is absolutely necessary because in order to continue our activities, we need to meet the European and world requirements for laboratory infrastructure, but it is also a result of the policy of MU-Varna to build a working environment of the highest class. Of course, large investments have been made in the purchase of equipment as well, and this process should continue at even higher speed. We have the human capital and growth resources, and the world practice shows that the construction of elite infrastructure requires external funding. Apparently, we have complete readiness to apply for the national, European and global programmes to find the necessary funds. Over the last five years, we have gained extensive experience in similar projects, many of which are still active. For instance, the Laboratory for Translational Medicine and Cell Therapy marked the beginning of creating a highly innovative production capacity, and it is a wonderful example of integration of fundamental science with clinical practice.
Varna is a beautiful city, with an excellent location at the Black Sea, but from an institutional point of view, we recognize not the tourist but the scientific potential hidden in the unique marine resources, the opportunities for seawater treatment and maritime medicine. Yes, our plans are daring, but we believe in the potential of Medical University - Varna to be a benchmark for research activities and their translation into practice not only on European but also on a global level. For this purpose, we need to build the entire structure, for which we have created detailed conceptual projects.
On several occasions you expressed your ambition to occupy key positions as a research institution in Europe, what are the tools you've been using to promote your activities?
As an educational institution we have already gained a reputation and recognized name, and our European prospective students compete to be trained at our University (3 applicants for one student place). This is not only due to the quality of the training process, but also due to the fact that we provide a great opportunity for launching a scientific career from the University. For several years, in addition to stimulating all our research teams to publish in the best international journals, we have created our own publishing house with 6 periodicals, all of them in English, in order to improve the visibility and to attract interesting scientific developments, without language barriers. In this regard, we take pride in the fact that one of the editions consists entirely of student publications. This unique in its character edition addresses the needs of young researchers and is an excellent prerequisite for developing the potential of young people.
How would you summarize the place and role of RIMU-Varna?
This is a unifying platform in the structure of the University, which will allow more profound integration of our specialists and will attract new minds. We hope that through RIMU we will be able to build the planned infrastructure and create an incubator for real translational science. We do believe that science should serve mankind, direct the business and improve the quality of life of each inhabitant of the planet. My colleagues and I are positive that the creation and development of the new Research Institute of MU-Varna is the right step towards sustainable development and investment for future generations.