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June 14, 2004

State Department program brings delegation of scientists from former Soviet Union to UCSC

By Tim Stephens

A delegation of scientists from the former Soviet Union working through the U.S. State Department's BioIndustry Initiative visited UCSC last week for an all-day program that included research presentations, laboratory tours, and informal discussions. The visit could lead to new collaborative research projects involving UCSC faculty and scientists from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Photo of scientist
A local television crew interviews Professor Vsevolod I. Kiselev, deputy director of the Center for Molecular Diagnostics and Therapy in Moscow (left), and UCSC alumnus Jason Rao, director of the U.S. State Department's BioIndustry Initiative (right), during their visit to campus as part of a delegation of Russian scientists.
Photo by Tim Stephens

The BioIndustry Initiative (BII) was created after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to strengthen U.S.-Russian cooperation in combating the threat of bioterrorism.

The BII sponsored more than 100 leading scientists and biotechnology industry representatives from Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan to participate in the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual conference, BIO 2004, held in San Francisco last week.

After the conference, most of the delegation then came to UCSC, where they were hosted by the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

BII director Jason Rao earned his bachelor's degree in synthetic organic chemistry at UCSC and worked in the laboratory of Bakthan Singaram, professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Rao later earned a Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and worked at the National Institutes of Health before joining the State Department's Office of Proliferation Threat Reduction.

Rao said his connections with the campus weren't the only reason he wanted to bring the delegation to UCSC. "This is a fertile ground for research, and there is a lot of opportunity here," he said.

Joseph Konopelski, professor and chair of chemistry and biochemistry, said the day's events engendered a lot of interest in potential collaborations between UCSC faculty and the visiting scientists. Konopelski said that after seeing how good the interactions were during lunch, he rearranged the afternoon schedule to allow more time for informal discussions.

"There's no question that there is incredible scientific talent in the countries of the former Soviet Union. What they are hungry for now are interactions with other scientists and opportunities that their own economies just can't provide," he said.

The mission of BII is to counter the threat of bioterrorism through targeted transformation of former Soviet biological research and production capacities. Rao said this unique international program has "incredible potential," both in joint efforts to combat terrorism and in opening up significant opportunities for U.S. industry.

"We are tapping into one of the greatest scientific communities during a time of enormous growth and opportunity. The possibilities are endless," he said.

The program at UCSC included presentations by both UCSC faculty and visiting Russian scientists working in various areas of biomedical research. Among the UCSC presenters was Anthony Fink, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, who has collaborated with Russian scientists in some of his research on the role of protein aggregation in diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

"It looks like we may start a new collaboration based on the discussions we had with some of the scientists in the delegation," Fink said.

Among the distinguished Russian scientists who presented their work was Raisa Martyniuk, a deputy director general for R&D at the State Research Institute of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR). A major goal of VECTOR is to fight emerging infections, Martyniuk said.

"The only way to do this is through collaboration," she said. "We are working for the long term because there are many emerging and newer problems, such as SARS and Avian flu. We want to develop a new generation of antivirus drugs, vaccines, and new methods of diagnostics of infectious diseases. We are working together for the mutual benefit of people throughout the world."

BII's partner organizations include the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in Moscow, a multinational nonproliferation program; the Boston-based Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT), a consortium of Harvard teaching hospitals, MIT, and Draper Laboratory; and its Russian counterpart, TEMPO, the Non-commercial Partnership Center of Modern Medical Technology. Through these partnerships, doctors and scientists in the United States and Russia are working together to develop anticancer vaccines and other exciting medical breakthroughs, said Rita Watson, communications director for CIMIT.

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