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Published: 04 Jun, 2019

Successful exchange of Ph.D. students, teachers and projects with colourful outcomes

FEATURE Screening for bacteria in big-cats due to a possible host-jump from Lions to humans thousands of year ago, a Nano-particle project with applications in Clinical Dentistry, these are examples of the many positive and colourful outcomes of an Erasmus+ financed exchange program, which continues to find funding and continued success.

Professor Thomas Borén, at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics is taking stock of the outcomes of a successfully conducted Erasmus+ Exchange Program.

The programme was propelled by Ph.D. student mobility, within the International Credit Mobility program. Four medical Ph.D. students from Sumy State University, Medical Institute, Ukraine, were joined with Thomas team for 12 months of activities at Umeå University, and participated and experienced first-hand the research milieu.

In addition, 8 teachers from Sumy experienced new teaching environments and newer perspectives, both at the pre-clinical microbiology and pharmacology departments and, in addition, in the clinical disciplines of odontology, lung medicine and neuro surgery, where they experienced great hospitality, professionalism and friendliness from the department.

In all the project delivered exchange of talent at both doctoral studies level, staff teaching/clinical mobility and can claim many positive outcomes. The project continues and continues to lead to dividends, both in Umeå and Sumy.

Hungry lion and the poor hunter

One of the rather unusual and exciting outcomes is the so-called “Tiger-project”.

The question that came up was about an attachment protein, BabA, a protein which the gastric pathogen Helicobacter pylori produce, and which Thomas’ team originally found and has worked on for many years.

The close bacterial genetic relationship suggests that a unique host jump occurred when a hungry lion ate a poor hunter in Africa some two-hundred thousand years ago

So, how would this protein have evolved and look like if we found it in another host? i.e. something different from humans? The questions led to realization that there is a close relative to the H. pylori bacteria, that lives in the stomach of big cats, such as lions and tigers, the Helicobacter acinonychis bacteria (Latin for cheetahs). The close bacterial genetic relationship suggests that a unique host jump occurred when a hungry lion ate a poor hunter in Africa some two-hundred thousand years ago.

This idea led to screening for bacteria from big-cats’ stomachs.  The ”H. acinonychis” bacteria causes severe gastritis in cheetahs and it's a serious problem as the animals in captivity encounter problems with digestion.

Thomas’ team worked on understanding the molecular basis for the bacterial attachment in the stomach, with the aim to identify possibilities to reducing discomfort in the big cats.

”Yes, it was great fun searching for our favourite protein, and that is something we wouldn’t have thought of pursuing if not for the veterinarian Erasmus-student in our group”. Chimed Thomas.

Thomas identified that the best possibilities for collaboration on stomach tissues from big cats is together with Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, and so the project continues with collaboration in another continent.

Another of the projects has application in Clinical Dentistry, related to novel nano-particles from Sumy, with antimicrobial activities. The collaboration has expanded to include the Department of Odontology. The nano-particles were first time visualized and analysed at the Umeå Core facility for Electron Microscope.

From the start

There are further successful outcomes of the project: which kick-started a few years ago when Thomas met with Roman Moskalenko, MD, from Department of Pathology in Sumy.

“The idea was to launch an ERASMUS program focused on receiving medical PhD students and teachers from Sumy”, says Jeanna Bugaytsova, with PhD from Ukraine and now researcher in Thomas team.

”We quickly realized that this was a great fit, in Sumy we joined with research interested medical specialists and, their enthusiastic PhD students were happy to join our projects, so skills and competence flowed in both directions, and we have now established a long-term sustainable collaboration, that was a bit of my thinking”, says Thomas.

The application process for the Erasmus grant went rather smoothly, thanks in part to support from International Office.

In May 2017 the project was awarded 65 thousand euros and work commenced during the summer with a start-up visit to Sumy. There were seminars arranged for student and teachers, information sessions for the promotion of the Exchange program, with the aim to identify the best candidates for the project.

Of the four highly qualified candidates subsequently chosen, two were pursuing a PhD in paediatrics, one in pathology and one in veterinary medicine, the so-called Sumy group.

In March 2018, the Sumy group arrived with a blast, greeted with an Aurora Borealis show upon arrival at the airport.

”Yes they had a great start, we joked with them that the northern lights is an everyday event here, because the green fluorescence light continues in our microscopes…” says Thomas.

The group then had a rigorous safety introduction to the department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, and an intense year followed, where the students learnt medical biochemistry, microbiology, presentation techniques, improved their academic English, participated in conferences and departmental kick-off meetings.

The Sumy group also found some time for cultural exposure, thanks partly to the Buddy Programme. They experienced the northern Swedish countryside, interacted with Elks, had midsummer picknicks, were part of the Julbord at beautiful Sävargården, making Lucia-buns, participated in the “wild” KBC ski-competition, and sailed Viking-boats (in Roskilde).

They were more than elated when assessing their stay.

“During the year I learned new teaching methods, and identified new ideas and found ways for collaboration” echoed Iryna, one of the Sumy group.

The project concluded at the end of March 2019 and the Sumy group returned to Ukraine, and the next stages of their respective project works continues at Sumy, and the project will be part of the student’s doctoral thesis.

Continued success and funding

Thomas’ and Roman’s application to continue the project has been granted by the Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR).

Thomas and the team were elated, “this validates our current work and helps us take it further and we are really excited and looking forward to the next phase”.

The collaboration with Sumy State University has meanwhile been cemented, with Collaboration Agreement and MOU signed for further exchange of staff and Ph.D. students.

The collaboration has further expanded to include the Departments of Odontology, in Umea and in Sumy and has seen teacher mobility actualize already.

“From the faculty level we have the mandate and ambition to support comprehensive internationalization efforts, and this project is a great example of utilizing internationalization to boost our core functions. It was also interesting to see Thomas achieve this at the doctoral level, something that is not common. I wish him continued success”, says Anneli Ivarsson, International Director of Faculty of Medicine.

"We have come a long way benefitting from the enthusiasm of all, the PhD students, the colleagues at Sumy, and  I think it is vital that it goes both ways, we had influx of talented PhD students and teachers, and they came with their own projects and started it, with our assistance, and in return we got inspired with new ideas and research projects, both pre-clinical and clinical, and all this acts as synergistic”, says Thomas Borén.