The first Georgi and Klementina's participation on the great scientific stage was at the Black Sea Symposium for Young Scientists in Biomedicine in March 2014, where their work was ranked second, and after that they decided to go on and prepare the present publication.
The vomeronasal organ is an olfactory organ found in amphibians, some reptiles (lizards, snakes) and mammals. It lies on the border between the oral and nasal cavities, and its function is to perceive volatile substances (mainly pheromones). This organ plays an important role in the formation of sexual and social behaviours in animals. Is there a vomeronasal organ in adult humans? The answer to this question is the underlying aim of the research, initiated by the students Georgi and Klementina in 2013.
You can read about how this idea came up, about the persistent work, support, success and satisfaction with the results achieved in the following interview with Georgi Stoyanov-5th year medical student and Klementina Moneva-4th year medical student at MU-Varna.
It is believed that the vomeronasal organ does not exist in humans, while in animals it plays a significant role in the formation of sexual and social behaviours. According to your research, can we assume that this organ does exist in humans but it is simply vestigial?
Georgi: Yes, this is one of the main theories of those who claim that it exists, and thus they explain why it exists. In various scientific studies we came upon during our research, it is claimed that in 1/3 to 1/10 of the people it is simply vestigial because it has lost its evolutionary role, as humans have developed a more sophisticated way of communication, which gives better and faster results in society. Anyway, these are only hypotheses and theories.
Which was the most interesting part of your work?
Georgi: The most interesting part was the working process itself as the study was based on statistics. After setting up the whole team in a pretty enjoyable and strange way, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sapundzhiev provided us with his personal materials, collected over the years - endoscopies and research files that he had been doing, and on the basis of all that, we had to look for the vomeronasal organ - whether it does or does not exist in humans - science does not provide a unanimous answer. We believed that it existed and persuaded Assoc. Prof. Sapundzhiev that it was there. He gave us materials, thence the search began, which included more than 1000 records, which Klementina and I looked through. We looked through everything - in some patients it did exist, in others it didn't.
Klementina: We set up criteria by which we indicated its existence as a morphological structure, and later on additional research on the organ functionality needs to be done. We observed videotapes of nazo-faringo-laringoscopies. This is a procedure involving direct observation inside the nostrils with a thin, tube-like instrument which has a camera built into the end. The organ is located literally 2 cm into the nose from the nostrils and during the procedure itself, the camera passes by that place, and if it exists it is visible and is recorded by the camera. Then we put a mark in a table, and then the calculations ensued. It was a pretty long process.
How did you come up with the idea for this study and what were your objectives at that moment?
Georgi: The main objective was to satisfy our own curiosity. The idea occurred to me in the spring of 2013, when I was studying for my Anatomy exam, for there were only two sentences about the vomeronasal organ in the textbook. I put a reminder stuck to the wardrobe, until we started the organization of the Black Sea Symposium for Young Scientists in Biomedicine at the University. In the autumn I met Klementina, who was enthusiastic about working together.
Klementina: Georgi told me about his idea, and I loved it. Moreover, at that time I was in Pre- clinic, and it seemed even more exciting.
Georgi: The first person we turned to was Prof. Tonchev. He was really glad to find out that there were students interested in scientific work. He advised us to turn to Assoc. Prof. Sapundzhiev, and thus our work together began.
Klementina: Prof. Tonchev was interested in our work all the time, supervising, helping us with advice, and the day when I received an email notifying me that the publication was accepted and would be published, the very first thing I did was forward the email to Prof. Tonchev. We received a BRAVO! His support and his satisfaction at our success mean a lot to us because he has done so much not only for us as students, as persons, as colleagues, but also he has contributed a great deal to MU-Varna in general, and the fact that he exactly was glad at our success was perhaps the highest honour for us.
Can we say that out of pure curiosity you came to the Black Sea Symposium for Young Scientists in Biomedicine, and then to a scientific publication in the renowned European journal The Journal of Laryngology & Otology?
Georgi: Yes, actually at the symposium we won the second place.
Klementina: Yes, I presented our research at the symposium. Our participation was really an emotional experience, since it was my first participation at such a conference. Then a lot of work on the project itself ensued since it was only an abstract presentation there. Actually the writing of the article took us two years.
Georgi: We went through some hard time in the summer of 2015. Our work was rejected by another scientific journal. After waiting for an answer for three months, we finally received one by the editors of the journal, which said: "We do not care about your work." It was a pretty tough moment for us which lasted several days.
Klementina: When your very first project has been rejected just like that, you begin wondering whether these two years of strenuous work were worthwhile for both of us. Most of all, the development of the article itself turned out to be very difficult for us. Assoc. Prof. Sapundzhiev put a lot of efforts into directing, correcting, providing suggestions, support for which we are extremely grateful to him. He supported us all the time, and after a 5-minute conversation with him we realized that the fact that they had rejected our work did not mean that they were right. We had satisfied our curiosity, we had achieved specific results and now someone had to assess our work. The Italian journal had rejected us, but Cambridge University said "Yes, we like it!"
Georgi: They even published our work with minimum corrections - with just one or two questions by the editors of the journal, which was a very good reaction to a first article. Academic papers usually go through 5-6 revisions before being published, and for us it was only one. Things happened fast, but based on 2-year work, well, after all it was worth it.
Which was the hardest moment along the way from the occurrence of the idea in the spring of 2013 to the present day in 2016, when the article was published in the prestigious scientific journal?
Georgi: Perhaps the Black Sea Symposium, because it was the first challenge and the first place where someone had to assess our work. And though we were second, I think we performed very well, and we gained our first experience, and we were fully aware of the reaction and evaluation of all attendees. Whenever we mentioned this mythical organ to our colleagues, which to a great extent had remained a mystery to science, there were lots of questions: "Well, you have done it at the Symposium, and now won't you go on to publish it?" This motivated us to write the article in order to enable other scientists to get access to the study. Our article is one of no more than 5-6 ones around the world, even in populations such as France, the US and Canada the studies are based on research on not more than 200-300 people, while ours is based actually on more than 1000 individuals.
What do the results of your studies indicate? Is there a vomeronasal organ in humans?
Georgi: Our results strike a happy medium between the percentages of the existence of the organ that other foreign researchers estimate. Their results vary between 15% and 36%, and ours are 26%. In our opinion the vomeronasal organ does exist in humans. Now we have to disprove those who acknowledge the existence of this organ but argue that it is of no functional significance. Our study is not based on assessing whether it is a functional organ but whether it exists in general. In the future, we intend to go on working on the assumption that it is functional in humans because in animals - rodents, reptiles, in mammals, even in elephants it is functional. In fact, only in primates, including humans it is claimed that the organ does not exist or it is not functional, while on the other hand, it is the main pheromone receptor through which the so-called inferior animals get in contact in order to exhibit a social behaviour.
Klementina: I would like to add that all the emotions associated with this academic article are great experience for people who make their first steps in science, and we are fortunate to have such research leaders who lead us on in the right direction, encouraging and criticizing us in order to achieve these results.
Where does your future lie - in the scientific or clinical field?
Georgi: A tough question, because we are still studying Medicine to become good doctors in order to be able to cure. In many fields and specialties this is interrelated with scientific work, because a person has to be inquisitive and develop himself, ask questions, which in return is beneficial to his future professional development. For me, the ultimate goal is to become a good doctor. Provided I can combine that with scientific work, I will feel completely satisfied.
Klementina: I hope to be able to combine them both as I am highly interested in both of them.
In which field of Medicine would you like to develop your career? Is it ENT diseases or you prefer to specialize in another area?
Georgi: Strange as it may seem, on the basis of this work, none of us really intends to specialize in ENT diseases. For me personally, Pathological Anatomy is the most intriguing.
Klementina: I still haven't made up my mind definitely which field of Medicine I will pursue.