Formula of serenity, or what young scientists are working on

February 13, 2018
Science and innovation

Igor Rodin, Doctor of Science in Chemistry, and Andrei Stavrianidi, PhD in Chemistry, have recently won the 2017 Moscow Government Prize for Young Scientists for their work on identifying adaptogens found in raw herbal material, which improve the body’s resistance to big city life stress. The research took about seven years, during which the young scientists carried out thousands of experiments and discovered a brand new group of compounds.

Andrei Stavrianidi, PhD in chemistry, and Igor Rodin, Doctor of Science in Chemistry

Big city life stress and Chinese medicine

What were the objectives of your research? What results have been achieved?

Andrei Stavrianidi: We are creating a set of analytical approaches to the analysis of herbal material. Our goal was to identify components of the plant composition, estimate their content and amount. We are also currently developing methods for extracting these components from plants.

In the future, pharmaceutical companies will be able to use our developments to make herbal medicine more effective. We are talking here about various biologically active food supplements as well as medicine.

Igor Rodin: Let me expand on this a little bit. There is such a thing as traditional oriental medicine, Chinese, for example. In a number of cases, it is more effective than modern western medicine. As part of a long-standing tradition, people in the east tend to avoid medication and turn to natural medicine, mostly, to preparations made out of plants.

You have to know exactly how a plant functions to make treatment as effective as possible

It is well known that ginseng extracts have a whole range of health benefits that can be used to treat almost any illness. Ginseng has been used this way for almost five thousand years. At the same time, we do not really know why certain plants have a positive effect on our bodies – the mechanism has not been discovered yet. Why do we need to know how this mechanism works? To make treatment as effective as possible. That is, we could take plants, extract certain substances and use them to create medicine that will be more effective than the plant itself. Moreover, by using semisynthetic analogues, we will also be able to create even more effective medicine.

In order to study a plant’s composition, you have to conduct a great deal of work, including preliminary work. You have to understand what kind of components it might have. You have to choose the right analysis methods for each of these components. Our research focused on developing such methodology for conducting complex analyses of complex objects of high importance, namely, plants.

Adaptogens improve our resilience to a difficult environment and help us cope with big city life stress

Why was your research nominated in the Science for the Megapolis category, not in the Medical Sciences?

Igor Rodin: Everyone knows that people who live in megapolises experience a certain kind of stress – big city life stress, which is related to pollution, considerable psychoemotional strain and the rhythm of the city. We have been developing new approaches to identifying and determining adaptogens in raw herbal material. These adaptogens improve our resilience to the difficult environment around us and minimise its negative impact.

Chromatographs, mass spectrometers and thousands of experiments

What kind of experiments did you conduct and what kind of equipment did you use?

Andrei Stavrianidi: First of all we choose the right conditions for extracting the components from the plants. To do this, we infuse the plants in water or water-alcoholic mixtures, boil them, use ultrasonic or microwave extraction and so forth. Then we analyse the obtained extracts to identify its components.

Igor Rodin: The list of equipment that we used includes liquid chromatographs with mass-spectrometric detection, chromatographs for preparative isolation and various systems of sample preparations, such as ultrasonic baths. The list of equipment is very extensive. Some tests were conducted using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

Which part was the most difficult?

Andrei Stavrianidi: Just like in any other research, there were a lot of difficulties. Three years ago, for example, we were trying to work out the structure of one of the groups of compounds. As it so happened, several components that we discovered had never been described before, and, moreover, they had never even been observed. That is, we discovered new substances. We handled this the proper way, confirmed the discovery with the data obtained during NMR spectroscopy. And this whole process – extracting, collecting the necessary amount of the substance for NMR spectroscopy, data interpreting – took about three years.

You have to conduct about a thousand experiments to produce the amount of substance necessary for conducting just one set of studies

Igor Rodin: In order to obtain a good NMR spectrum, we had to have dozens of milligrams of this substance, while its content in plants is very low. That is why you have to conduct about a thousand experiments to produce this amount of substance in its pure form. Imagine performing the same procedure a thousand times just to produce the necessary amount of the compound! You get a small amount of powder, you are to continue working with it, but the produced amount is just enough for conducting the whole set of studies just once. Which means that if you do something wrong, you have to conduct a thousand experiments all over again.

Moreover, there is such a thing as preliminary studies. We had to answer lots of questions: what will we be extracting, how will we be extracting it, what do we do with the produced substance next – in other words, how to dry this substance out without it disintegrating, how to conduct the NMR experiment properly and so forth. Research is similar to fine-tuning an instrument for it to function properly.

Every article is a huge amount of work

Another difficulty is getting published in journals. Top-rated journals that publish us select only a certain percentage of the total amount of submitted articles. Editors filter out about 50 percent of all selected articles. The articles that they tentatively believe to be good are sent to be reviewed by senior experts that specialise in this particular field, and each of these experts gives them a full review. This procedure can take months. At this stage, most of the articles get filtered out. Some of the remaining articles may get good reviews, but the experts may suggest that the authors further elaborate on the subject or re-write the article completely. All in all, every article is a huge amount of work. But this work is necessary, because that is what modern science primarily is about – getting your article published at a high international level.

What stages should your developments go through for them to be implemented in practice?

Andrei Stavrianidi: First of all, the pre-clinical studies. At this stage we have to work in collaboration with medical professionals: study fractions or whole extracts for biological activity, select the most prospective ones and examine them in detail. The research is aimed at achieving concrete practical results. After that, clinical studies come, during which researchers are to study the effects of the new medicine.

We, chemists, only work with small amounts of substance, which are just enough to solve analytical tasks. Medical professionals, however, require larger amounts.

Igor Rodin: I would like to point out that we are chemists, and our job is to conduct comprehensive studies of plants. Production of medicine is a completely different thing. We do not even develop a formula for the production of this medicine, despite the fact that our developments could be of interest to pharmacists, and could make herbal medicine more effective.

Is research like this conducted abroad?

Igor Rodin: Of course. It is a popular field. This kind of research is being conducted by scientists from all over the world, but most actively – by our Asian colleagues from China and Korea.

What are you planning to do next?

Igor Rodin: We will keep working with new plants, extracting fresh groups of compounds. We hope that we will be able to get to a whole new level in terms of equipment. Instruments play a crucial role. Imagine examining some object, a pencil, for instance, with the naked eye. Then, examine it using a magnifying glass, a microscope, and, eventually, a high-quality microscope. Each time, you will discover a greater number of details many of which you had not noticed before.

From chemistry lessons to prestigious awards

If a prospective student asked you to recommend a prospective chemistry school programme, which one would you choose?

Igor Rodnin: My answer would be rather simple: any programme offered at Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Faculty of Chemistry. Any programme offered there covers a prospective front line chemistry field.

Chemistry is a science that requires a certain mindset

Why did you decide to study chemistry at university?

Andrei Stavrianidi: I always enjoyed all subjects taught at my school: history, biology, physics, mathematics, chemistry – some of them more, some of them less. Eventually, I had to decide between physics and chemistry. I chose chemistry because of my school teacher, who was very good at his subject, plus I was always slightly better at chemistry rather than at physics. But I think that both chemists and physicists share the same mindset. 

Igor Rodin: My reason was my love for chemistry. We have a saying at our faculty: you either understand and love chemistry from the very first day or you do not understand it and hate it with a burning passion. I fell in love with chemistry when I was still a school student. I think the credit here goes to my teacher, her lessons were always interesting. But it is not just the teacher that affects the way one feels about certain subjects. Once again, chemistry is a subject that you either love or hate. If a school student has no interest and no desire to learn, no teacher can fix it. For better or worse, chemistry is a science that requires a certain mindset, which is why not everyone can learn to love it. But if they do, they are in it for life.

Have you ever thought about going in for something else? If not chemistry, what would it be?

Igor Rodnin: That is a good question. Allow me to put it this way: if it wasn’t chemistry, it would have been something else.

Andrei Stavrianidi: Like I said, I had to choose between two subjects. If it wasn’t chemistry, it would have been physics.

What made you decide to try and win the award?

Igor Rodnin: It is a prestigious award, which is highly respected in the scientific community. We thought that we had really good results that were worth knowing, and decided to apply. As it turned out, we were right.

Since MSU is a state university, research is mostly sponsored by federal resources. Nonetheless, the Moscow Government’s policy concerning people working for the Moscow scientific community is very good and wise. Various programmes, contests, grants and so forth are important as well as necessary.

Please, share your professional aspirations with us. Perhaps, you would like to win an international award?

Igor Rodnin: Personally, I believe that working exclusively for awards is wrong. It is similar to what sports is all about, while science is about completely different things. The global scientific community’s recognition of your findings is much more important than any awards. For instance, when you write an article and see that other people refer to it, that your findings are used by other people working on their own research. And this feeling that you made this contribution to international science must be the best award there is. Moreover, we are patriots of MSU’s Faculty of Chemistry, and we love glorifying it.

Andrei Stavrianidi: I do not have any particular aspirations. But, speaking of why people go in for science in general, I think that one should aspire to become better at internally understanding what you are studying. Take, for example, Vadim Davankov. Some say, he came close to winning the Nobel Prize. At the time he was working on chromatographic sorbents, which separate substances that look just like mirror images of each other. In his recent studies, however, he together with his colleagues started understanding the chirality of matter, understanding how chiral amino acids are formed during processes that are similar to cosmic ones. It is a whole new level of thinking. This is the goal of the scientists: raising their bar higher and higher – the sky is the limit.

Source: mos.ru

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