The Baltic Course  

Pour me an anti-stress coctail

By Olga Pavuk

A kind of anti-stress cocktail is not a wild fantasy but one of many Vasily Bankovsky’s discoveries. He is a Latvian bioengineer, and solving the problem of stress tolerance has become V. Bankovsky’s most important mission both in science and his private life.

Photo: from private archives

V. Bankovsky's personal genetic cloning laboratory, year 1998.

In the beginning of our conversation he playfully adds: “…in some years this new trend in science will be called a combinatory biochemistry and the Nobel Prize will be awarded to the one who will provide most impetus into such research. To expand human life span, he continues, as well as to preserve existing human life cells – these are solutions of a not so distant future. Actually, a practical solution to the issue will appear within the coming 10 years”.  

“You are a genius man!” said to V. Bankovsky his British companion Ludo Chapman, a direct Charles Darwin’s descendant, when he got to know his colleague’s scientific results. Latvian researcher calls himself a “creativity scientist”. This notion has been used very often during our interview with Latvian BioSan’s president V.Bankovsky. He has a doctorate degree in biology as well.

Recently, this Latvian scientist has developed a special bio-reactor that functions as a stress generator, and has cultivated in it lactobacillus’ cells that could be used for producing yogurt. He considers such neo-Lamarck* experiments as just his hobby or entirely scientific entertainment that in the nearest future will be nevertheless able to revolutionize approaches to produce food products having combinatory characteristics, including additional anti-tumor and anti-stress qualities.


Creative approach

Vasily looks almost like a boy, although he just turned 50. He is young, energetic, sportive, almost all the time quoting famous Russian poet M. Tsvetayeva and playing with anecdotes. He is a man of great learning in many field of science, which is nowadays almost amazing. And as a result, he is not afraid or frightful of other global problems. But he cannot be taken as a groundless dreamer either. His achievements in microbiology, biochemistry, gene engineering, mechanics, hydrodynamics, data logistics and biological safety, as he makes fun of himself, is “well-known among a narrow circle of quite serious people”.

Vasily defines the “creativity concept” in the following way:

“There are not more than three percent of creative people in the world. Under certain conditions about nine more percent may be added to this group. In fact, it’s simply a question of how genes are mixed presently. Creativity is everywhere, it’s Mozart and music, and it’s art and science… All that sort of things is equally important to a creative person. And that person easily learns everything, he easily becomes an expert without big efforts. Economic and political turmoil followed by stagnation with a subsequent renascence just due to changes in elite’s structure from frigid and calculating partocrates (like Saliery) to more or less creative people… For example, Latvia currently experiences similar time of change.

At a time of globalization, and world crisis creativity potentials have grown in value. The one, who can create a creativity school that will be able to increase human efficiency from 3 up to 9 percent, will be the ruler of the world.

European Union, which we soon enter, has been fed up with creativity. It’s partly due to Catholicism’s philosophy; excellent Bertrand Russel’s* books explain the essence of conflict between dogmatic and creative people. However, the biggest disadvantage for Europe has been connected with wars of previous centuries that worn out and extinguished the gene’s fund, negatively affected further on by the migration flow and brain drain to the USA.

Vasily often develops the most fantastic and unusual ideas… For example, while travelling in Siberian region Saha-Yakutija and making research on Yakut horses’ adaptation procedures to extremely low temperatures (up to minus 70o C), and talking with biologists, he got to know that during wintertime, horses “drop” their body temperature from 39 down to 16 degrees. Due to this phenomenon the body’s energy consumption decreases drastically. The temperature’s reduction process is guided by a certain protein’s component, concentration of which in blood increases during wintertime and decreases during summer, when the animal regains previous temperature.

In fact, such observations are extremely important for biomedicine and in particular for present long-term space research programs connected to long in time human beings travelling to Mars and other planets.


Something about Latvian science…

However, after perestroika period Latvian science experienced a hard decade, and almost all research work had been stopped. But the issues concerning stress tolerance have became a constituent part of the scientist’s thoughts and some of them started to be presented “in a certain anti-stress yogurt”, as Vasily put it. According to the scientist himself, during many years of experiments many ideas remained only “in the books” or “disappeared ” into other scientists’ heads often having been implemented in other laboratories and in other countries. It lasted until he established his own scientific and producing company BioSan. This is here that the whole cycle was implemented, i.e. from idea to a final product, and further on into high technologies market. And he adds: “Market, actually, highly appreciates creative product. But production companies, on the contrary, would eat me alive for those constant changes I made in products”.

His wife and company’s commercial director, Svetlana adds to this:

“The meaning of our business lies both in generating creative ideas, and in gaining profit. The following questions are important: What ideas can bring further development to the company and would be a contribution to science at the same time? Which ideas will disappear as a result of the tough natural selection in the free market? Economy and society don’t need just any ideas whatsoever, but only those that can survive, those that have been tested in time. Making trivial things will not be a prospective. Western society is currently more interested in a quantitatively new stuff and not in production prices. On top of this, nothing can be compared to the delight that comes when an idea, already implemented in a series of instruments, starts its long way of concurring foreign markets”.


Formula to success

Photo: from private archives

First contract signed in South-East Asia, with the Seolin Bioscience company's president, year 2000.

The Company BioSan already for seven years produces laboratory instruments and equipment used in gene engineering and biotechnology. But BioSan has done something more important, i.e. it has combined three previously almost incompatible things: creativity (idea’s scientific background), production (implementation of the results achieved) and marketing (sales division). The innovation (creativity) division elaborates about 10 new laboratory instruments annually. Production division produces about 30 types of different equipment devices for experimental work. Marketing and sales division (through dealers and its own network) sells final products in more than 20 countries all over the world. According to Bankovsky, they sell in those countries where research priorities in biochemistry, genetics and cell biology at matrix level – the most strategic trends of the XXI century – are really high. These, as a rule, are in highly developed countries, involved in bio-safety issues, including hereditary diseases.

Bankovsky has strictly and clearly stated his business’ success formula.   

“First stage, a “crumb one”, rests on getting credits, e.g. from the Education Ministry (about 5 – 7.000 lats, or 10 -14.000 us dollars) which provide a possibility to survive. Second stage – successful usage of all available financial means, in order to establish a production technology and organize sales; we managed to succeed in it. Third stage, in case of success, is about finding investors and acquiring money, and properly using money for development. And there is a fourth stage, i.e. creating an innovative high-tech enterprise. This stage involves elaboration of an emerging brand, possible change in the company’s name, therefore it is advisable that the Western company – partner has at least 50 years of operation. BioSan today is at the fourth stage of the success formula”.


Brilliant idea? It’s a piece of cake… All genuine things are simple

Vasily compares genetics with a kitchen work:

“Our science – genetics, molecular and cell biology – it looks like “kitchen work” everything needs very precise operation. All the time something is mixed here in various combinations.

The philosophy of our business is an individual instrument, personal tools. While experimenting in other countries, I understood that I just lack my own “mini-laboratory”, those instruments that could be packed in a suitcase when going for a business trip abroad.

What we have achieved can be compared to research results in space exploration, i.e. those who can solve, for example, a problem of a successful spacecraft launching would become the first, whatever his proposals would include. The same situation is with an individual or personal laboratory. But then, trying to resolve the issue in principle, there appeared a bunch of similar and dependant although less significant questions. First, such instruments should be miniature, with low energy consumption, multi-functional, safe, and pleasant to work with. This approach aimed at solving both the main question and some subordinate ones has made our company innovative.

At the beginning in Europe, in particularly in Germany, people were wondering until they acknowledged the innovation of our approach. Today in Germany our approach is very well known and has a brand- name “Lab4You”. Unlike conservative Europe, in rapidly developing southeast Asia (Japan, South Korea and other countries) the concept of miniature individual laboratories has became popular immediately and is known there by its brand name “MyLab”.


“pure science” becomes applied science

Photo: from private archives

Charles Darwin's great-grandson - Ludo Chapmen, Bankovsky's companion from UK (from left to right L. Chapmen, E. Blazhevich, V. Bankovsky). Cambridge, year 2003.

Questions of life prolongation and bio-safety in the large-scale fashion are dealt with only in most developed countries, i.e. the G8-group. They have all the necessary technologies to extend the cells’ lifetime. For already four years BioSan produces equipment for elimination of various viruses and microorganisms in the air (e.g. DNA and RNA molecules), including those that cause tuberculosis, flu and other illnesses, threatening population health in our planet. Such new and compact devices can be installed in international airports, big railway stations and ports where infections are most likely to develop. The SARS’ story just added new impetus to bio-safety issues.

Vasily states the strategic trend of his research in the following way:

The best team of specialists in Latvia in the sphere of bioengineering – this is a so-called “collective brain”of our company. Five people are involved in fundamental science, they think continuously and try to find solutions even to the most complicated ideas. I function as a “playing coach” in our team using the knowledge acquired during excellent Soviet education. That means, I have to keep an eye on what is going on in fundamental science, to spot the development of some branches and suggest instruments for resolutions. I create so-called verbal picture of the future instrument. In this field we are one of the first, in line with the USA, Japan and Russia.

Our strategic aim is to develop equipment for “damping” DNA and RNA information. Thus, fundamental research in molecular biology has become entirely applied in nature”.


Stable patriotism

Many well-educated scientists have gone to the West during recent years. Vasily refused to leave the country, denied various invitations and decided to stay in Latvia, although science here is not very popular at present.

 “Why have I not left? Because I’m not a migrating bird, and because I have some  other (settled down) surviving strategies which are connected both with restructuring and adaptation to the changing environment that has developed as the result of “perestroika”. Those who had left, regardless of their creativity level, have moved one step back. I did it my way, as well as whole Latvia alike; we stood up and all together moved into Europe.

Therefore it’s better to have such partners as I have, i.e. those from Cambridge, where 50 years ago DNA formula was decoded. This approach is much more successful. In  2004 Cambridge will start financial investment into BioSan’s laboratory research, with the first-hand rights in the use of acquired results. In this regard, we represent a successful example of Latvia’s high-tech future.

And I am proud at the same time that we have the organ in the Dom Cathedral, Riga’s Art Nouveau, our beautiful Opera House, Jurmala and finally, chain of “Lido” restaurants. All businessmen creating their own brands, undoubtedly, are creative people; they set the level of achievements so high that there is nothing left but to follow their example”.

*) Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), French evolutionary biologist.

*) Russel Bertrand, 1872-1970, British philosopher and mathematician.