PhD in Molecular Biomedicine. Vira studies brain development disorders using stem cells at the University of California, Berkeley (USA). Her work will help children with genetic brain diseases that cause frequent epilepsy.
"If science can be used for good, it must be used fully": about tuberous sclerosis research and neurobiology in wartime
Story of neuroscientist Vira Iefremova
I am engaged in researching diseases of the development of the brain, namely, the study of tuberous sclerosis. This disease is caused by genetic changes in DNA in one of two genes. Most patients with tuberous sclerosis have epilepsy, and in 80% of them, it is drug-resistant. Often the only solution is to remove the part of the brain causing epilepsy, but this is not possible in all cases. In addition, surgical intervention is far from always effective.
My research is to understand the mechanism of tuberous sclerosis’s development. In the long term, it may be possible to offer new ways of treating this disease. Until recently, most experiments were conducted on laboratory mice, but it often happens that even with a genetic mutation identical to the patients, epilepsy does not occur in mice. There is something unique about the development of the human brain that causes such a strong effect from breaking just one gene. For example, a person has 25 thousand genes, and an error in just one letter of the code of one gene can cause this huge problem.
In academia, where I work, things move more slowly than in commercial organizations or the biotech industry. And it’s not because there’s less money. It is just that the system is much more regulated. For example, you revise the research plan entirely in the pharmaceutical industry if an experiment fails for half a year.
In basic science, you pay a lot more attention to why an experiment doesn’t work until it starts working or you finally realize it doesn’t. Basic science, of course, provides a comprehensive basis for further applied research, but it takes longer, so sometimes it seems that things are moving very slowly.
I’m an impatient person, so it’s difficult for me. To see at least some result of what I do every day, I need to wait at least 3-4 months, ideally half a year. You must train willpower, patience, and endurance, and learn to lose regularly and not take it personally. It does not mean that you are an ailment; you just need to repeat the experiment, and that’s it.
Therefore, unfortunately, everything is not developing as quickly as we would like, but some things are beyond our control. I cannot make the brain cells grow faster. But, of course, there is progress.
How Vira ended up becoming a neuroscientist
I’m just curious and like to learn, and I made it my profession. It seems that all the scientists I have met are somehow children who never grew up. All your work, no matter how interesting and pompous it sounds, is actually a search for answers to questions that bother you so much that you write a grant for 5 million dollars and study for ten years. In my opinion, this childlike curiosity, which will stop at nothing, is one of the most critical factors for success in science. Doing science is never a 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. job. On the one hand, this isn’t good, because you have to learn to rest. On the other hand, it is much more than a job. It is a way of life.
As a child, it was difficult for me to focus; I wanted to do a hundred things simultaneously. But if I had to wait for the results for a long time, I quit this activity. I am very grateful to my parents, who never forced me to do anything I wasn’t interested in, so I tried many different things. At school, I graduated from the Ukrainian language and literature class. I was interested in reading literature and writing essays, but I also studied science: biology, physics, and chemistry. Not because someone forced me, but because I was interested. It was my final choice.
How goes the war affect your work?
I’ve been living and working in Berkeley, California, since last September, so I found out about the start of the full-scale invasion on the evening of February 23rd, US West Coast Time. After coming home from work, I scrolled through the news feed and saw that my friends and acquaintances from different cities in Ukraine were writing about loud sounds and explosions. I read the posts and could not understand. It was a paralyzing moment, followed by thoughts and plans about how I could help.
None of us were prepared for this, although we understood that the probability of a full-scale war was extremely high. It is challenging to concentrate on work. But the understanding that this is a way to help Ukraine supports at least some ability to function and be helpful. For example, to join various actions and volunteer initiatives supporting Ukraine.
I am the only Ukrainian in my laboratory, but because of the war, I got to know two more neurobiologists from Ukraine who work here. We even work with one of them on the same floor. Before the full-scale war, I didn’t even know that there was a Ukrainian woman here because she studies an entirely different topic, and scientifically, we would not have crossed paths.
Now we are trying to create a scholarship to support Ukrainian scientists. In some universities, this is a little easier, depending on how the work is organized. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has already organized a named scholarship in honor of Yulia Zdanovska, a mathematician from Kharkiv. Perhaps she would be the third woman ever to receive the Fields Medal. We are losing incredible people, and keeping their memory alive is the least we can do.
There is the Science for Ukraine initiative, a huge Twitter account where laboratories from all over the world offer hosts to scientists, and they, in turn, publish information about themselves: what they can do and what they would like to research. The scientific community seems to have rallied, but again, there is a moment. Everyone agrees that it is necessary to help Ukrainian scientists, but not everyone agrees that it is essential to stop working with Russia because science is supposedly outside of politics. And it is not out of politics.
Why is it essential to work with neurobiology now?
Talking specifically about my topic of work, children, unfortunately, do not stop needing drugs against rare diseases during the war. Accordingly, both medical support and research on these diseases should continue. Statistics show that one child out of 6,000 is born with tuberous sclerosis (data from the United States). In Ukraine, the statistic is smaller because diagnosing this disease is quite difficult.
In Israel, for example, there is a somewhat developed area of research into how post-traumatic syndrome develops and how to best treat it. After all, we know very little about the mechanism of development of this disease: why neurons form exactly such neural networks, which then give strong reactions to loud sounds, and flashes of light.
State-of-the-art limb prosthetics are also related to neurobiology. Special helmets are developed that a person wears with musculoskeletal disorders to regain control over his body. It’s all based on neurobiology.
Everyone knows Elon Musk and his Starlink, but he has another completely futuristic line of work about which little is known in Ukraine. The idea is to implant special neurofiber into the brains of people with musculoskeletal disorders. As a result, patients will be able to move their limbs again. Musk’s company already has the first results, and they are pretty impressive.
Currently, therapy for various spinal cord injuries that immobilize a person is also being developed. With the help of stem cells, the work of specific nerve endings that regulate the ability to walk and move hands is restored.
I am convinced that there will be investments in science in Ukraine after our victory because such cooperation is an indicator of your social position. Vast amounts of money will be invested in the restoration and funding of science. It is a pity at what price all these investments will be received. However, if possible, building institutes according to new principles and increasing cooperation with international institutes and organizations is necessary.
This war is high-tech. If science can be used for good, it must be used fully. It would seem: where is neurobiology, and where is the benefit for the military? But in fact, neurobiology can also be helpful not only in peacetime. As far as aiding in rehabilitation, behavioral studies of the neural networks that form during different patterns of our behavior will be able to help military and civilians suffering from post-traumatic stress.
It seems that each science discipline can contribute in one way or another. It is just necessary, if possible, to change the focus of their research a little and reorient to more applied things.