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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sakha Scientist's Potion for Diversification

MTKershengolts standing near a 400,000 ruble lichen-processing machine.
Editor's note: This is the second of two stories.

YAKUTSK, Sakha Republic -- Many see the future of Sakha in diamonds, gas and uranium. But a local scientist sees it in alcoholism-curing lichen, antioxidant-packed larch trees, and disease-fighting reindeer antlers.

The scientist, Boris Kershengolts, is making health goods with lichen and animal products and selling some of them in local drug stores. He has won the respect of the local medical establishment, and is in talks with an Asian pharmaceutical company.

"With a sensible approach, the bio-resources of a northern region can become as large as diamond mining and other extractive industries," said Kershengolts, chief researcher with the Institute for the Biological Studies of the Cryolite Zone.

Many northern regions are rich in raw materials like diamonds, oil and coal, but federal authorities are seeking ways to diversify their economies away from the extraction industries to make them more sustainable and science driven.

Regions like Sakha, where most of the country's diamonds are mined, present a particular challenge. More than 40 percent of the region's territory lies above the Arctic Circle; the republic is so vast that it spans three time zones. Transportation costs are huge, and the problem is exacerbated by the lack of a railroad connecting the regional capital, Yakutsk, to the rest of the country.

The federal government will discuss Sakha's development at a meeting Thursday. The republic's president, Vyacheslav Shtyrov, is to participate.

With so few benefits on hand, Sakha needs to capitalize on its natural disadvantages, Kershengolts said. That means making use of the plants and animals that have had to adapt to the severe climate and, as a result, have twice as many bioactive compounds as those in warmer climates, he said.

Lichen, a fungus that grows on trees and rocks and is eaten by reindeer, can help treat alcoholism; the meat of a local breed of horse can serve as a powerful protector against radiation; and antioxidants made from larch trees could sell for up to $100 per gram on the world market, Kershengolts said.

"This is the way to turn our minuses into our pluses," he said.

Arctic regions remain understudied, but interest in bio-prospecting -- the search for new chemicals in living things -- has been mounting in recent years. "So far, bio-prospecting is just in its infancy, but there is a growing interest in the Arctic," said Dag Nagoda, a senior official with the Norwegian Foreign Ministry who wrote his Master's thesis on the subject.

"The main reason is that the organisms in the Arctic live in such extreme environments that they have developed extreme properties to survive, properties that may also be useful for potential new products and chemicals," said Nagoda, the ministry liaison with the Arctic Council, an organization of Arctic states. Norway took over chairmanship of the council from Russia in October.

Kershengolts recently sent a proposal on how the North could cash in on his medicines to an adviser with the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, which is charged with drafting a plan to promote the economies of the northern regions.

Anna Smolchenko / MT
Institute director Pavel Remigailo
The adviser, Mikhail Zhukov, praised that proposal at a Federation Council roundtable that discussed ways to develop northern economies in December. "The time has come when we can start processing on site," he said.

One idea floating in government corridors is to develop the North through business clusters -- groups of businesses, suppliers and research centers that spur the development of small- and medium-sized businesses and increase overall productivity through cooperation. In an example of a cluster, St. Petersburg has developed a thriving automotive industry centered on a group of foreign car plants.

Gennady Oleynik, the head of the Federation Council's Committee on Northern and Minorities Affairs, told the same roundtable that clusters were "the only solution for many northern territories to develop economically and socially."

The Economic Development and Trade Ministry is teaming up with Canadian colleagues to prepare a six-month study exploring the cluster approach, said Alexander Vorotnikov, a senior official at the ministry.

Vorotnikov did not know whether Sakha would be part of the study, but he said it met all the requirements to host clusters.

A bio-cluster in which research centers and businesses cooperated as proposed by Kershengolts would be possible but would be very expensive to set up, he said, adding that scientists should be more proactive in establishing ties with businesses. "What's the problem with our scientists?" he asked. "They're unable to translate their inventions into business."

Kershengolts retorted that scientists should do what they were best at --creating products, not selling them.

Brimming with ideas, Kershengolts is something of a celebrity in Yakutsk, with local newspapers giving extensive coverage of his scientific activities. He's a distant but direct relative of Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem; his great-grandfather was sent in exile to the region from Poland for participating in peasant uprisings in the late 1870s. Kershengolts studied at the Moscow State University but came back to pursue his research in Yakutsk.

Today, Kershengolts and his small team are using the institute's bare-bones laboratory to make the medicines he wrote about in his proposal. He created his first product, an immune-system booster made of reindeer antlers called Epsorin, in the 1990s, and it is available in some drugstores in Yakutsk and elsewhere.

In his proposal, Kershengolts wrote that producing Epsorin could help increase the income of reindeer herders, a major task the regional and federal authorities are now facing. While good-quality antlers have long been exported, the leftovers can be used to make products like the immune booster, which costs $90 per liter. If Epsorin production were started on an industrial scale, the price for the leftovers could jump from the current $20 to $30 per kilogram to as much as $200, the proposal says.

Anna Smolchenko / MT
Biologist Alla Zhuravskaya
Epsorin has even been the subject of university studies. In December, a Yakutsk-based surgeon defended his thesis on how Epsorin could help speed up the healing of patients with facial injuries, said Nyurgun Stepanov, chief doctor at the regional health ministry.

Stepanov praised Epsorin and Kershengolts, his biochemistry professor from university days. "He's a very advanced man," Stepanov said.

Tatyana Lukavina, director of a Yakutsk-based drugstore, said Epsorin "sold well" two or three years ago but her drugstore inexplicably had stopped stocking it. She was unaware of the institute's most recent research.

"Nobody's offering us those products," she said, adding that they would most likely be popular with local customers if they were available.

Among the newer products is a lichen-based substance that, if added to vodka, reduces the toxicity of the drink, prevents hangovers and slows down the development of alcoholism, Kershengolts said.

Vodka mixed with the product, named Yagel, or Lichen, is actually tasty, said Alla Zhuravskaya, a biologist at Kershengolts' institute.

"I am not a fan of vodka, but the feeling that it is vodka just disappears," she said. "What should you do if you can't give up [drinking] immediately? It's not realistic to ban drinking."

The scientists last year stuck a deal with a Sakha distillery, part of the local food giant FAPK Yakutia, to produce the new vodka, but that plan fell through. The scientists blamed a control battle at the distillery for the failure, although Zhuravskaya also said the new vodka would have cost 10 percent more than competing brands.

A spokesman for FAPK Yakutia, Pavel Kopyrin, said he was not aware of any plans by the company to produce the vodka.

The institute acquired a 400,000-ruble machine to process the lichen. The elaborate piece of equipment was acquired from the closed Siberian town of Zheleznogorsk and was originally used to split isotopes.

The lichen also cleans the bloodstream without the use of an IV and removes cholesterol to prevent heart disease, Kershengolts said.

The institute's acting director, Pavel Remigailo, said about 15 million rubles ($565,500) in investment was needed to kick off mass production of the lichen and the institute's other products. "Unfortunately, nobody has responded so far, although an interest exists," he said.

The institute is holding talks with an Asian company that sells pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. "Few people know about Yagel," Remigailo said. "We're exchanging opinions for now."

A company official confirmed his organization's interest in lichen and other "original raw materials" in Russia but refused to elaborate. The official spoke on condition that he and his company remained unidentified, citing the sensitivity surrounding the negotiations.

Another potential moneymaker, Kershengolts said, is dihydroquercetin, which can be extracted from the larch trees that grow in abundance in Sakha. Dihydroquercetin is a relatively newly discovered substance that can be used as an antioxidant in medicine or as a food additive. It retails for $100 per gram, so profits could be on par with the money made in the diamond-mining industry, Kershengolts said.

"Market demand for this product is colossal," he said. "Demand is being met by no more than 10 percent to 15 percent," he said, adding: "That's the most effective preserving agent known to date."

But bio-prospecting has its skeptics, including Bruce Forbes, a professor at the Arctic Center at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland.

"I don't think anybody would make a gold mine out of this," Forbes said. Still, he conceded, "somebody could get rich."

Kershengolts' "basic point, that the Arctic tends to be underutilized and underappreciated, is correct," he added.

Nagoda, from the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, said several research institutes and companies were investing in the exploration of potential new products from Arctic bio-resources. As an example, Nagoda cited the discovery of a molecule in cod liver by researchers in the University of Tromso several years ago. "Currently this molecule is used to identify genetic diseases and has a market price of approximately $3 million per gram," he said by e-mail.

Florian Stammler, an anthropologist and a colleague of Forbes at the Arctic Center, said he was not aware of the substances in Kershengolts' proposal but had heard of the professor. He said research like his was worth supporting but expressed doubt that his products would be popular in the West. "People there are a little more skeptical" than in Russia, he said.