Basic cancer research in Ukraine is now effectively on hold—but scientists are not waiting out the war to resume their projects. Many are finding temporary placements in laboratories abroad and learning new research skills they hope to bring back to Ukraine when the conflict abates.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Ukrainian cancer researchers were ready.
Executing a plan hatched following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, they packed flow cytometers, DNA sequencers, and other valuable equipment into wooden crates for protection against military threats. They transported rodent models into makeshift bomb shelters in the basements of university buildings. And they moved cell lines normally stored in liquid nitrogen tanks, which require regular refills, into ultracold temperature freezers connected to backup generators in case electricity is cut off.
Basic cancer research is now effectively on hold. Most scientists who stayed behind are focused on analyzing data and writing manuscripts. Some have taken up arms and joined the Ukrainian resistance. But many are leaving the country to resume their work abroad.
“The priority is to survive—and after the victory, I believe that we'll continue our research” in Ukraine, says Iryna Horak, PhD, of the Palladin Institute of Biochemistry in Kyiv, who is continuing her breast cancer experiments at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.
Ruslana Shadrina, PhD, of the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics in Kyiv, is already in Barcelona, Spain, where she is learning to use bioinformatics tools and analyzing cancer gene sequence data. After fleeing the Ukrainian capital with her cat, Teya, and landing in Warsaw, Poland, Shadrina found an online spreadsheet—with 2,200 names and counting—listing researchers around the globe willing to host and financially support displaced Ukrainian scientists.
She reached out to a few people, found Núria López-Bigas, PhD, of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, and within days flew to Spain for a 3-month paid internship in López-Bigas's cancer genomics lab.
In Ukraine, Shadrina analyzed methylation patterns on circulating tumor DNA and cofounded the country's first direct-to-consumer DNA testing company. However, she had had limited experience with computational cancer research. “This is a new opportunity for me to learn a lot,” Shadrina says.
Oksana Mankovska, PhD, is similarly trying to, as she puts it, “get something positive” from an otherwise disastrous situation. A tumor biologist who normally studies gene expression and methylation patterns in prostate cancers at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics in Kyiv, Mankovska is now working on a 2-month contract at Eisbach Bio in Planegg, Germany, screening potential anticancer drugs for synthetic lethality activity.
Like most Ukrainian scientists, Mankovska plans to return home when it is safe to do so—and when she does, she says, “I will bring all this knowledge back with me.”
However, that assumes there will be research infrastructure left after the war. After the bombing of universities and hospitals in some Ukrainian cities, Inessa Skrypkina, PhD, of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics in Kyiv, who now temporarily lives in Freiburg, Germany, worries whether there will be laboratories, tumor repositories, and other cancer-related resources to return to. “If they are lost, it will be very hard for us to finish our studies,” she says. “It's a high risk.”
Stephen Chanock, MD, shares that concern. For decades, he and his colleagues at the NCI Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics have been collaborating with Ukrainian scientists to study the long-term consequences of radiation exposure from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. So far, he says, no irreplaceable biopsy tissues, blood samples, pathology slides, or paper records have been destroyed, although “that could change at any time.” Plus, people who have participated in the research—both Chernobyl cleanup workers and individuals who were exposed to radioactive fallout as children—will invariably be lost to follow-up.
But “the personal element is by far the most worrisome,” Chanock says. “We have very deep and marvelous collaborations with individuals there, and we're worried terribly about their health and their families.”
“We're on pins and needles seeing what happens,” he says. –Elie Dolgin