Inessa Skrypkina

PhD in Biology, head of the Laboratory of Nucleic Acid Biosynthesis, senior researcher at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Studies brain cancer cells.

"Even as a child, I seriously thought about how to cure cancer." A story about cancer cells studies, work in the first days of the invasion and the future of science

The history by molecular biologist Inessa Skrypkina.

About the decision to become a molecular biologist

I have always been interested in biology. First, I observed various insects, ants, grasshoppers, and butterflies — things I saw around. Then I saw a documentary about Mendel and his experiments on pea crossing. The most exciting part began in high school: protein synthesis, DNA, etc.

At the same time, I wanted to be a doctor for a long time — just like my mother. As a child, I liked to come with her to the hospital and observe the treatment process. Therefore, I initially planned to get a medical education but did not manage to enter university. The following year I entered the genetics department, where I later specialized in molecular biology.

When I was at school, my father got cancer. Then, even as a child, I seriously thought about how to cure cancer. And later, I realized that I wanted to work on carcinogenesis issues. The department that I chose during my studies at the university did not study cancer processes – and in general, there were almost no such laboratories in Ukraine. In the beginning, we worked on reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that synthesizes DNA based on RNA. However, one way or another, we came to the study of brain cancer cells. Also, together with the Institute of Urology, we are researching kidney cancer markers for early diagnosis.

About the study of cancer cells

Molecular biology is actually a vast field of interest. Thus, some time ago, I participated in a large project that studied changes in the blood of seriously ill patients with COVID-19 who were in the intensive care unit. Currently, I am most focused on researching the processes that occur in brain cancer cells. In particular, we are studying glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of cancer with a very high mortality rate: on average, patients diagnosed with glioblastoma live 14-18 months. Unfortunately, this disease is resistant not only to medical drugs but also to radiation. Our task is to study which genes cause such resistance of glioblastoma to therapy.

Patients with glioblastoma of the fourth stage have increased expression of two genes — CHI3L1 and CHI3L2. The primary medication used to treat patients with brain gliomas is temozolomide. In Ukraine, we studied to which extent cells with increased expression of these genes are resistant to this drug.

Now I am in Germany, where I received a grant to support Ukrainian scientists. Here, I am investigating how glioblastoma cells respond to different types of radiation and what affects their resistance to radiotherapy – German laboratories have the necessary equipment for this. After that, we will be able to test these same cells for resistance to temozolomide.


About the work of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics during the full-scale invasion

On February 23, we had a very long meeting with the professors of Kyiv Academic University — we carefully discussed the training programme for future students, but there was tension in the air. When I got home, I put together the basic things (documents, money, medicine) and went to bed — it was already somewhere after two o’clock in the morning. In the morning, I woke up from a call from my daughter, who lives in Germany. She informed me that a full-scale Russian invasion had begun.

I immediately started contacting the Institute employees. Everyone understood that preserving our collection of cells and tumours (brain, kidney, prostate) was necessary. We kept them in a special storage facility, which requires liquid nitrogen. The stock was scheduled to be replenished on February 24. My colleague Lilia, who is responsible for this storage, lives not too far from the Institute. She walked there with her husband to transfer the collection to a low-temperature refrigerator because they simply could not find nitrogen. Other employees also came between the air alarms: they taped up the windows and hid devices. Even all the plants were moved into the corridor so that the guards could water them.

We also have a vivarium — a room for keeping and breeding laboratory animals. One of the employees, who takes care of it, came to the Institute and lived between it and home for several days. Employees looked for sawdust and tried to take care of the mice, despite active hostilities in Kyiv and the region.

In general, the Institute was fully mobilized and active. Of course, some experiments had to be curtailed or even abandoned. However, no matter how expensive experiments are, they can always be repeated while human life is unique.

Now we are again very worried because of the issues with electricity, which is necessary for the operation of the instruments and the preservation of the samples. It will be a shame to lose this collection as we have been collecting it for years — we have brain tumours from 2002.

About moving to Germany and working abroad

At the beginning of the invasion, my arm was broken, so I could not go to the Institute. And it was also challenging to go down to the basement during the air raids — I could neither get dressed quickly, put on shoes, or take the backpack. My daughter kept asking me to leave, and some good people took me all the way to Milan. From there, I joined my daughter in Germany.

Around that time, my former colleague contacted me with an invitation to apply for a grant for Ukrainian scientists to continue research started in Ukraine. It turned out that she also works with glioblastomas — so I applied, and now, four months later, I have received funding for my work.

Germans are generally determined to build long-term cooperation and emphasize that these are only the first steps. They really want Ukrainian scientists to come and apply for funding because they see that our people are intelligent and hardworking. And after the end of the war, we will return to Ukraine with new knowledge and continue international cooperation.

Why is it worth doing science now?

You can’t give up on science — and in general, any activity we engage in. If we abandon our cause, it means that the Russians have won, broken our spirit, and we have lost our zest for life. And the thirst for life means, among others, to do something exciting and valuable.

Science provides knowledge that helps us move forward. In molecular biology, which I am involved in, the fundamental profile means that our results will bear fruit not today, but tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, years from now. Today, we have studied specific genes and understood how they affect certain processes, and after some time, we may be able to offer effective treatment methods for glioblastoma.

Another example is the project of the biologist Volodymyr Shabliya together with the Filatov Institute. They conducted clinical research on human retina restoration. Now such developments could potentially help to cure our injured people — and this is also the result of science and the work of Ukrainian scientists.

Yes, the scientists’ life is now very challenging. Molecular biologists, for example, need reagents and special media, which are currently difficult to bring to Ukraine. However, science cannot be abandoned — we do not stop or let our brains get rusty.

I never wished to work abroad, so after our victory, I definitely plan to return home. But now I am happy that I could go to Germany and continue my work. Here I see new prospects for development, and I think a lot about what may be needed after the war’s end to rebuild Ukraine and change our science. In particular, to make it more attractive for young people because students are our future.

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