Vilnius introduces Prof V. Šikšnys name scholarship for most talented students in life sciences field


10 December, the remote Nobel Prize winners’ presentation ceremony will be held in Stockholm. The scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year for the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing method (the ‘genetic scissors’ technology). Virginijus Šikšnys, Professor of biochemistry at Vilnius University (VU) Life Sciences Centre, together with the team, are the pioneers in this field who have made a significant contribution to this discovery and its development. In order to perpetuate the professor’s achievements, the international Virginijus Šikšnys name scholarship will be established in Vilnius shortly before the day of the Nobel Prize award. It will amount to EUR 10 thousand annually. Vilnius has committed to funding the scholarship for at least five years. In order to further symbolise the scientist’s work, the sculpture dedicated to the ‘genetic scissors’ technology will be erected in Vilnius next year.

Scholarship for the greatest talents in life sciences

‘We are proud that global talents emerge and continue their work in our city. The achievements of Prof Virginijus Šikšnys are not only a significant contribution to the promotion of Vilnius as a world leader in the field of life sciences, but also to the health of the whole of humanity. By establishing the international scholarship of V. Šikšnys name, we aim to strengthen opportunities for young people to learn from the scientist who has received global recognition, and to attract and retain the most talented students for the Vilnius University Life Sciences Centre,’ says Remigijus Šimašius, Vilnius City Mayor.

The scholarship will be administrated by Vilnius University Life Sciences Centre. The most talented students of higher-cycle life sciences from all over the world studying and conducting research in Vilnius will be eligible for it. The scholarship will amount to EUR 10 thousand a year. Vilnius undertakes to allocate this amount for five consecutive years with the possibility of extending this deadline.

According to Šimašius, the scholarship will contribute to the maintenance of both the most talented students in the country and provide opportunities to help discover foreign talents in Vilnius.

‘Vilnius is already shining on the map of world leaders in life sciences. V. Šikšnys, who works here, contributed to the discovery and development of the world-changing CRISPR-Cas9 technology, Vilnius University students won the IGEM Main Prize for the second time this year in the prestigious Genetics Engineering Machinery Competition, and our city is home to well-known international biotechnology companies such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, Teva and others. So in this area Vilnius actually has something to be proud of,’ says R. Šimašius.

News about the initiative was welcomed with joy

Prof Šikšnys smiles as he talks about the initiative and is pleased that the scholarship will become a great incentive for young scientists to continue actively engaging in research: ‘I, of course, did not expect that the scholarship of my name will ever emerge in Vilnius. But I think it would be better to see it as an important initiative in the city, supporting talents and encouraging young scientists to continue their work actively, not anywhere else, but in Vilnius.’

Prof Gintaras Valinčius, Director of Vilnius University Life Sciences Centre, which also employs Prof V. Šikšnys, welcomes the emergence of the scholarship – according to him such initiatives directly contribute to the rise of global talents.

‘The success of any research institution, city and country in the world of science depends on people. Thus, by recognising the abilities of young scientists, we will encourage them to continue working actively in Vilnius and to promote Lithuania by their achievements. It is essential that in this journey of young talents, the city appreciates the benefits of scientific achievements and is proud of them as of the integral part of the city’s history, culture and life. Those young people are inspired to continue their work in this city,’ says G. Valinčius.

For the discovery of so-called ‘molecular gene scissors’ Prof Šikšnys has received prestigious awards – Warren Alpert of Harvard University and, along with this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the famous Kavli Prize.

In addition, back in 2017, the professor was awarded the Danish Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Novozymes Prize which he also shared with E. Charpentier.

Sculpture for ‘genetic scissors’ technology in Vilnius

At the beginning of the next year, the initiative of the scholarship of the professor’s name will be complemented by another symbolic step: the sculpture dedicated to the perpetuation of the ‘genetic scissors’ technology is planned to be unveiled in Vilnius, near the VU Life Sciences Centre. Its creation was entrusted to the artist Eglė Žvirblytė.

‘My both parents are well-known biotechnologists in Lithuania, and my dad has even worked with Prof V. Šikšnys for a while. I was also seriously considering studying exact sciences, but finally ended up on the path of art. So now I’m very happy that the circle has turned around and I have the opportunity to return to the world of science again and to create a very important sculpture for the city which combines both my roots in Vilnius and the story of my parents,’ says E. Žvirblytė.

According to Inga Romanovskienė, Director of Vilnius Development Agency, this gift from the city to the field of life sciences will visually reveal what world-class discoveries are made in Vilnius.

‘The ideas that are being developed in Vilnius change the world – we have to be proud of that. A playful sculpture for ‘genetic scissors’ technology near VU Life Sciences Centre will allow every passer-by to link this place to the breakthrough that is emerging here. It will be a kind of incentive for young people to seek big goals, because everything is possible in Vilnius,’ says I. Romanovskienė.

One of the most important scientists in this discovery in the world

This year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry award went to the scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier from the Max Planck Institute in Berlin and Jennifer Doudna from the University of California for discovering and developing the CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Nonetheless, the international community of scientists sees Prof Šikšnys as one of the most important creators and developers of this technology in the world.

The ‘genetic scissors’ technology is a purposeful method of replacing the DNA sequence encoding molecular processes that determine the activity of living organisms, involving the CRISPR-Cas9 protein and RNA molecular complex.

In the future, this technology is expected to lead to healing not only hereditary blood or eye diseases, but also muscular dystrophy and hereditary heart defects. This genome editing method can help cure AIDS caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and is important in developing innovative cancer treatments. In addition, the technology is already being introduced in agriculture, creating new plant varieties that are resistant to drought or other adverse climatic conditions.