Continuing a series of conversations with NU doctoral students, we offer an interview with Bolat Sultankulov, PhD graduate of the School of Engineering and Digital Sciences, who successfully defended his dissertation on the topic “Chitosan composite cryogel with polyelectrolyte complexes for tissue regeneration application”.
What do you think are the benefits of NU PhD programs?
I must say that Nazarbayev University developed right before my eyes. Although I worked at NU as a researcher in a laboratory setting before entering doctoral studies, actually being a PhD student was a completely new experience for me and one I greatly value. In my opinion, the main advantage of the NU PhD program is the overall quality of the doctoral candidates. These students enter with a high level of preparedness, many are already active researchers, almost all are motivated to acquire new skills, open to dialogue, and fluent in English. In general, I believe that Nazarbayev University trains good personnel, as evidenced by the number of students publishing in high-quality scientific journals, which are often international and peer-reviewed.
What was the topic of your dissertation?
In 2014, I entered the PhD program at the School of Engineering and Digital Sciences and my research topic was related to the creation of material for bone regeneration. This material was called cryogel because of its porous structure and was created based on natural polymers of chitosan and heparin. As noted above, I was primarily interested in the potential of this material to be used in bone regeneration. We loaded the cryogel material with the growth factor BMP-2 (bone morphogenic protein 2), as well as rat mesenchymal stem cells. Under the influence of the growth factor, the stem cells were transformed into bone cells. Research into the creation of cryogels at NU was initiated by Professors Sergei Mikhalovsky and Dmitry Berillo during the time that they worked at NU.
The history of obtaining the material is interesting not only from the point of view of biomaterial research but also from the point of view of obtaining it. During my studies, I won a grant for PhD students from Erasmus Mundus, which allowed me to work for 3 months at the University of Brighton (UK), in the laboratory of Sergei Mikhalovsky, where Dmitry Berillo also worked. We spent a lot of time in the laboratory, but time passed, and I could not get the required material in any way. One might say that I received the material by accident. Once, sitting at night in the laboratory and having already lost hope for any results, I began to mix together all the polymers that were on my table, and one of the solutions obtained as a result of such mixing was very unique. This was kind of a little discovery and allowed me to get the material I needed.
In the future, I continued my research, including with the cooperation and support of domestic and foreign specialists. One of the experimental articles published on my PhD work was prepared jointly with researchers from Fukuoka University (Japan). In this work, we have shown that our material is also very well suited for skin regeneration. Cooperation with Japanese colleagues became possible thanks to the assistance of one of my supervisors – Arman Saparov. Students of the NU School of Medicine Alexander Jaguparov, Ayan Nurkesh and Saltanat Smagul also took part in the work on this scientific material. I believe that the participation of medical students in these types of projects will help them develop the research skills that are so necessary in the modern world.
What is important when working on a dissertation?
As a result of the PhD program, we published two experimental articles in good journals and applied for a patent. I am proud of the work we have done. I was very lucky with my supervisors – Professor Tursonjan Tokay, Professor Arman Saparov, Dr. Dmitry Berillo, Dr. Lyubya Michalovska and Professor Sergei Michalovsky. They all provided invaluable help and great support for my research. Having supervisors who believe in you and your work are essential for success. Luckily, I experienced it myself. There was a moment when I myself lost faith that I could successfully complete my work, but Arman Saparov did not stop believing in me and in our research, and for this, I am very grateful to him. I remember receiving an email from Sergei Mikhalovsky, where he wrote that he always believed in me. Professor Tokay also always said that I am a very independent researcher and that everything should work out for me. And it really helped me. Therefore, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of one’s supervisors’ support and faith.
Additionally, I consider the larger community at Nazarbayev University one of the great advantages of studying here. Many colleagues and fellow students helped and supported me during my research. We also received a lot of support from employees of other laboratories of the university. In this regard, I would like to express my deep gratitude to Sholpan Askarova and Yuliy[CP1] a Safarova for their enthusiasm and help in obtaining mice mesenchymal stem cells. Now Yuliya herself is preparing to defend her dissertation and I wish her every success and believe that she will succeed! I also spent a lot of time in the laboratory of Professors Ivan Vorobyov and Sholpan Kauanova, working on my project. I would also like to mention Baurzhan Negmetzhanov, who was always happy to share the necessary reagents for research.
And I would like to express my special gratitude to the Director of the PhD Program, Professor Luis Rojas Solorzano, who worked on the creation of a successful PhD program at NU. He is a person who gives his whole soul to his work, developing a PhD program at NU and provides great support to all PhD students. I think many doctoral students will agree with me.
What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment, I am busy working on creating a test system for detecting coronavirus infection, and received support in this study from the YRA (Young Researchers Alliance) and the NU Social Development Fund. It should be said that YRA and the Foundation are doing a great job to support young scientists not only at NU but throughout Kazakhstan.
It is no exaggeration to call this project international. I received support from a group at the University of Zurich, from Nurlybek Mursaliyev a PhD student at Stanford University, and Maisam Mitalipova the director of the Center for Stem Cells at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I also cooperate on the project with Erlan Mirkhaidarovich Ramankulov the General Director at the National Center for Biotechnology, who is also concurrently a professor of Nazarbayev University. The main goal of the project is to create test systems based on nanobodies. Nanobodies are unique antibodies produced by camels and sharks, and their uniqueness lies in the fact that they are very primitive in structure and using genetic engineering methods, they can be obtained from bacteria. The nanobodies, which a research team in Switzerland received, bind to the coronavirus spike region, which facilitates the virus’s entry into cells. This property of nanobodies can be used to create a test system for determining coronavirus infection, which I am working on now.
Since 2014, having equipped my laboratory, I have been developing in cell therapy, have my own company, and in the near future I see myself in commercial science. I work with scientists from Nazarbayev University Sholpan Askarova, Ayim Kayyrly, Farhad Olzhaev, Rauan Smail, who have developed a drug against psoriasis “Apsorin”, which was launched into pilot production in the “A +” pharmacy chains in Almaty. Now a research group led by Sholpan Askarova is preparing for official clinical trials, carrying out a huge amount of work with the support of the Commercialization Office of Nazarbayev University.
Tell us about your future plans?
My dream is to create a large biotechnology company in Kazakhstan, which will create useful products for society and will function for tens or even hundreds of years. After all, such companies exist in the West, and I am sure that with the proper attitude, efforts and knowledge, I can create such a company. And now, consistently, step by step, I go to the realization of my goal.
But, of course, it’s not just work and ambitious goals that make life beautiful. I believe that the main catalyst for the successful implementation of all plans and projects is the family. And I am grateful to my mother Meiramkul for the support she has given me and is giving me, as well as to my wife Karina, and of course to my still young son Arlan!