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Fostering high scientific quality in protein research in Eastern Slovakia

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CasProt (Fostering high scientific quality in protein research in Eastern Slovakia)

Reporting period: 2022-01-01 to 2023-09-30

Liberal economic reforms accompanied by an influx of foreign investment in the early 2000s resulted in strong economic growth that earned Slovakia the nickname the ‘Tatra Tiger’. Today, though, the model of low costs combined with cheap, skilled labor seems to have run out of steam, and Slovakia is looking for a new impulse to drive economic growth and help it catch up with its European Union peers. Slovakia is confronted with significant challenges characterized by economic disparities, lower performance in research and innovation (R&I), and a devastating exodus of its invaluable, highly skilled workforce, commonly known as the "brain drain." Notably, Eastern Slovakia experiences an unusually high emigration rate while contributing only 14% to the overall Slovakian GDP. But while experts say innovation is the best way to go, Slovakia’s current innovation capacity is low, as judged by international comparisons. The project CasProt with the coordinating organization Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Košice (UPJŠ) will provide excellent support for scientific development with an intention to mitigate the brain drain from Eastern Slovakia. A general objective of the CasProt project is to significantly strengthen the scientific excellence in protein science at UPJŠ by linking it with two internationally leading institutions from an EU Member State and an Associated Country: Technical University of Munich (TUM, Germany) and University of Zürich (UZH, Switzerland).

The success of the project will unavoidably lead to a higher reputation and networking channels of coordinating institution UPJŠ. We suppose that UPJŠ will become a leader in the field of protein science in Slovakia after the project implementation, with the potential to attract and incorporate recognized as well young promising scientists/early-stage researchers into UPJŠ and in the long-term to slow down or even reverse the brain-drain from Slovakia.
The combination of the financing from the CasProt project and from the European Structural Funds has already created a synergy effect leading to a powerful enhancement of the capability of UPJŠ to compete successfully with the internationally leading institutions for EU and international research funding.
Successful outcomes of the project's scientific activities will lead to establishment of protein science cutting-edge technologies (single-molecule techniques and directed protein evolution methods) in laboratories at UPJŠ. These will significantly increase UPJŠ potential, particularly the scientific group at Center for Interdisciplinary Biosciences in networking and collaboration leading academic institutions in Europe and (ii) development of proteins and enzymes for biotechnological and pharmacological purposes.

Concrete main objectives are:
(i) Reinforcement of scientific capacity and raise the research profile of the coordinating institution UPJŠ in the field of protein science
(ii) Identification and integration of the experienced and young scientists/early-stage researchers at UPJŠ
(iii) Enhance and stimulate the technological capacity of the coordinating institution UPJŠ
(iv) Strengthening the research management and administration skills at UPJŠ
Collaboration between our groups at UPJŠ and groups of Prof. Plückthun (UZH) and Prof. Rief (TUM), has been significantly strengthened in the 2nd period. During the years 2022 and 2023, 1 PhD student (1x1 PM) and 3 senior researchers (2x1 PM, 1x0.3 PM) carried out their study stays at the UZH, and 2 PhD students (2x0.8 PM) and 4 senior researchers (2x0.8 PM, 2x0.3 PM) visited the TUM labs.
The collaboration with the top laboratories in the field has led to a relatively steep increase in the quality of papers published by the members of the CIB-TIP UPJŠ laboratories. In fact, while during 2020 there were published 21 papers with the average IF 3.4 in 2021: 36 papers with IF 3.6 in 2022: 28 with 4.3 and in 2023 (up to the September) 18 papers with IF 7.2.
The plan for the conference attendance in the 2nd half of the project has been accomplished. Thanks to the support of the CasProt, the members of our teams attended five recognized conferences with active participations presenting there 7 lectures and 13 posters .
Support of our research by project CasProt and projects from the EU structural funds OPENMED (Budget for UPJŠ: 4.9 million EUR) and BioPickmol (Budget for UPJS: 2.1 million EUR) as well as by projects supported by Slovak grant agencies APVV and VEGA had a synergic effect and resulted in opening of new laboratories, which have been equipped with the state-of-the-art instruments worth over 1 milion EUR.
New technologies and methods have been established in the labs of UPJŠ, such as the protein evolution method – ribosome display. As a result of the collaboration with the UZH group, we are in the process of establishing the yeast display method, which represents another powerful method of the directed protein evolution. Practical skills obtained during the stay at UZH initiated an establishment of new method of the expression and purification of eukaryotic proteins based on the baculovirus expression system (BEV). This method expends our capability to express different eukaryotic proteins, difficult to express in bacterial systems, in CIB labs.
Study stays at TUM resulted in deepening of knowledge of utilization of the state-of-the-art single molecule technique – optical tweezer. Obtained skills regarding preparation of nanodiscs provide a unique opportunity to study biophysical properties, such as dynamics and stability of integral membrane proteins, such as GPCR, in their natural environment.
Thanks to the CasProt support, we have established new collaborations with the top laboratories in the field of rational design - the group of Prof. Damborsky at Loschmidt laboratories at Masaryk University in Brno in Czech Republic and Prof. Fraaije group at University of Groningen in Netherlands. Very recently, we have submitted joint project on the topic related to the utilization of ribosome display in improving properties of thrombolytics based on staphylokinases with vast potential in clinical application, haloalkane dehalogenases with potential in bioremediation and genetically encoded photosensitizers with potential in photodynamic therapy.
In conclusion, the CasProt project significantly contributed to the long-term sustainability of excellent research, technology transfer, and raise research profile of UPJŠ. The collaboration with the partner groups at UZH and TUM resulted in new collaborations with groups at Commenius University and Neuroimmunology Institute of Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava (Slovakia), Loschmidt laboratories at Masaryk University in Brno (Czech Republic), University of Groningen (Netherlands) and University of Bayreuth (Germany). CasProt project thus contributes to the enhancement of the R&I performance of Slovakia and significantly subsidizes the creation of highly competitive research institutions in Eastern Slovakia and by this means strengthens the economic potential and social cohesion of this region, fully in agreement with the main priorities of the Slovak government.
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