- Written by Ivan Dulgerov
Since it was established in 2015, the CPSBB has demonstrated unequaled scientific productivity in the field of plant biotechnology for Bulgaria and the region
Prof. Dr. Milen Georgiev
Head of Plant Cell Biotechnology Department, CPSBB
What are the main research activities of the Plant Cell Biotechnology department at CPSBB, headed by you?
The main research areas are the study of the synthesis of secondary plant metabolites and their possible application, both in economically important crops for the purpose of improving their quality and yield, and in the fight against socially significant human diseases, such as obesity, psoriasis, aging, etc.
Take resurrection plants, for example, which are the main object of our research. Our team explores the molecular mechanisms of resurrection plants for survival under stress conditions (moisture, drought, temperature changes, etc.), but the results of our research can be applied to peppers and tomatoes, as well. The molecules that plants synthesize under such stress conditions are of particular interest.
In nature, living organisms either run or fight when threatened. Plants are static and their only survival mechanism is “fight”, which constitutes the synthesis of certain survival molecules. This surviving mechanism of the plant’s immune system is of great interest to us. These synthesized molecules can eventually be used to improve the quality of economically important crops, as well as in human medicine, cosmetics and pharmacy.
What makes your scientific work innovative for Bulgaria?
We are proud that our laboratory is a pioneer in Bulgaria in the development of a 3D model of human skin (epidermis). We also have a UV chamber – unique technology which allows us to conduct research related to photoaging of human skin, potentially discovering new ways to protect it using natural products.
CPSBB works with a unique for Bulgaria UV chamber in order to conduct a scientific research related to photoaging of human skin and its potential prevention with natural products.
UV rays, together with so-called “blue light”, are the main cause of skin aging. It is well known that UVA and UVB sun rays can penetrate the ozone layer and reach us. UVB rays reach only the superficial skin layer, while UVA rays penetrate to a greater depth. The UV chamber at our laboratory can reproduce the full range of UV rays that exist in nature in any part of the globe. This allows us to explore the way natural molecules are affected and whether these molecules could be applied to the skin in order to protect it from the sun, thus slowing aging.
The global market for photoprotective products is worth $10 billion a year. Most are based on “titanium dioxide”, which the EU is likely to limit in the near future for use on human skin. Therefore, the search for natural alternatives for the production of sunscreen cosmetics is of increasing importance. That’s why we study plants. They cannot go into the shade when exposed to excessive sunlight, thus we study their mechanisms for protecting themselves against extreme UV exposure.
We are currently searching for the molecules which plants use to survive this type of abiotic stress. We will further study whether and how these molecules can be effectively applied in human cosmetic products using our 3D model of human skin.
The Plant Cell Biotechnology Department of CPSBB develops a 3D model of human epidermis. The 3D model is based on immortalized human keratinocytes, stored in special containers with liquid nitrogen.
Longevity – so-called healthy aging or aging with improved quality of life – is also of great interest, as a global trend in clinical trials. We have created a scientific hypothesis, postulating that the molecules responsible for the survival of plants under stress conditions can also improve the quality of human life during aging. This hypothesis will be explored in detail and we hope that we will prove it scientifically.
Many people believe that prolonging human life is fiction. However, I do not agree with this statement. Just think – today, average life expectancy is about 80 years, while a hundred years ago it was only 50 years, i.e. today we live on average about 60% longer. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Nobel laureate Ilya Mechnikov hypothesized the extension of human life expectancy. His theory is that the human body is designed to live 150 years and every death before that is premature.
We have selected several types of plants and molecules for our research that are proven to affect various conditions in prolonging life expectancy.
Our research team is a pioneer in Bulgaria with one more scientific breakthrough – we have patented a utility model for in vitro propagation of the resurrection plant Haberlea rhodopensis (the so-called Orpheus flower). This utility model is crucial for the conservation of the protected plant species Haberlea rhodopensis’ natural habitat. At the same time, it offers an environment for year-round accelerated in vitro propagation in controlled laboratory conditions regardless of climate, seasonality or any geographical influence.
CPSBB patented a utility model for in vitro propagation of the resurrection plant Haberlea rhodopensis (or the so-called Orpheus flower)
Along with the previously discussed molecules of the Orpheus flower, we are interested in another of its main molecules – myconoside. Our method of in vitro propagation allows the synthesis of this myconoside in far larger quantities than in the mother plant. A study of myconoside benefits and its possible application in human medicine, cosmetics or pharmacy is forthcoming.
What challenges do you face in your scientific work?
Currently, over 80% of the world’s population relies on plants for pharmacological needs. The challenge of the 21st century is to explore and find natural alternatives to synthetic molecules in medicines. Undoubtedly, synthetic drugs have contributed significantly to prolonging human life. Both antibiotics and vaccines constitute great medical advances. I do believe that it is time to build on those advances and start applying natural drug molecules in practice.
Have you already discovered natural molecules that can be applied effectively in human medicine, pharmacy or cosmetics?
We aim to develop products that have added value and are supported by science. We already have a product developed by our research team to relieve external skin symptoms in psoriasis (a chronic autoimmune disease). Our product is an all-natural composition based on molecules of plant origin. Statistics show that 2% of the world’s population suffers from psoriasis, which means that this number in Bulgaria is about 140,000 people.
Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disease for which there is currently no cure. The external expression of skin symptoms can be very drastic and is likely to cause subsequent infections. Relieving these symptoms can significantly improve the quality of life of patients. We have already developed a product which will be launched on the market in the near future.
Obesity is also a major focus of our research as it is a global pandemic. Today, more than 1.9 billion people worldwide are overweight and around 650 million are obese. For the last 40 years, these numbers have tripled, suggesting that obesity is poised to be ubiquitous globally. It is a disease which is mainly caused by lifestyle – stress, excessive nutrition, low physical activity, etc. It is dangerous for human health as it often leads to other diseases – metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and lower quality of life as a whole.
A significant part of our research for active natural molecules is based on ethnopharmacology, ie. on knowledge accumulated over the centuries and proven empirically in the treatment of a number of diseases. Significant ethnopharmacological knowledge has been accumulated in Bulgaria and I believe that it is our national treasure. We have this great advantage of learning from it and applying it in our research. Thanks to this complex scientific model, we were able to isolate plant molecules that demonstrate a high potential. We have to verify this scientific discovery and to explore its effect on living organisms in order to prove scientifically that these molecules can be effective. In the near future we hope to invent a product for people with obesity.
What will be the contribution of CPSBB and the PlantaSYST project to the development of plant science and biotechnology in Bulgaria?
PlantaSYST is currently one of the largest research projects in Bulgaria, funded by European programmes. It is the largest and the most significant national project funded by the EU and the Bulgarian government in the field of plant science. The project managed to unite the scientific community in Bulgaria – it partnered with scientists from universities, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Germany. Moreover, this project brought together scientists and institutions in Bulgaria, as the project received co-financing from the OP “Science and Education for Smart Growth” of the Ministry of Education and Science, while the Municipality of Plovdiv provided free land for the construction of the largest Center of plant systems biology and biotechnology (CPSBB) in Bulgaria. The campus has already been built, the technical equipment is currently being provided and soon the new building of the CPSBB will open its doors for scientific research at the highest level.
I do believe that it would not be an exaggeration to say that the CPSBB’s scientists have demonstrated unequalled scientific productivity in the field of plant science and biotechnology in Bulgaria and the region over the 7 years since the CPSBB was established. What lies ahead is to build on these results with scientific breakthroughs and achievements in plant systems biology and biotechnology, which will position Bulgaria in a worthy place among leading research countries worldwide.