Date November 6, 2023
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Interrupted by war in Ukraine, doctors continue work to improve cancer treatment, at Brown

The Legorreta Cancer Center is hosting two visiting oncologists from Kyiv whose work and lives were interrupted when Russia invaded their country in 2022.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Russia invaded Kyiv in 2022, the immediate priority for most people in Ukraine’s capital was the safety of their families. For many medical professionals, their second priority was care for the ill and infirm patients they had spent their careers serving.

Dr. Nataliia Verovkina, a medical oncologist at the National Cancer Institute, had been overseeing treatment plans for patients, some of whom required aggressive chemotherapy. With Kyiv under threat, her city was gripped by fear. The NCI remained open, but the chaos made it difficult for hospital staff to get to work. Planned surgeries and non-emergency procedures were paused.

With military action less than five miles from her home in the Kyiv suburbs, Verovkina packed up and drove across the border to safety with her husband, son and his grandparents. Yet she couldn’t stop thinking about her patients — those who had been receiving chemotherapy before bombs interrupted, and others suffering from difficult side effects who now had no access to medication. Verovkina and her husband, a scientific researcher, decided to return to Kyiv.

“I really feel a responsibility for my patients, because they were facing double stress: the war and the cancer,” Verovkina said.

Within a week of the invasion, the NCI was able to resume treatment for many patients. Verovkina and other medical professionals took turns sleeping at the hospital because it was safer and more convenient. Kyiv seemed on the verge of capture, and they weren’t sure what each new day would bring.

Like many across the globe, Dr. Wafik El-Deiry, director of the Legorreta Cancer Center at Brown University, reacted with horror to the invasion.

“I felt like we had a moral obligation to help our Ukrainian colleagues in the medical community,” El-Deiry said. “When you see injustice in the world, it moves you to try to do something to help.”

Days after Russian troops entered Kyiv, El-Deiry and other Brown scholars added their cancer research laboratories to a list of international labs supporting Ukrainian scientists.

He connected with staff in the Office of the Provost and the Office of Global Engagement, who partner with rescue organizations, including Scholars at Risk and the New University in Exile, to assist scholars in need of temporary placement opportunities.

In March 2023 — about a year after Russia’s invasion of Kyiv — Verovkina and another medical oncologist from the city, Dr. Dinara Ryspayeva, joined El-Deiry at his lab in Providence. With support from the provost’s office, Brown’s Division of Biology and Medicine, and the Legorreta Cancer Center, both now work as assistant visiting professors at Brown, with salary and benefits. And the University worked to ensure that the physician-scientists had visas, housing, health care and other necessities.

The scholars, both of whom have doctoral degrees, conduct research and assist at Brown’s affiliated hospitals.

“We wanted to create an opportunity here to learn some things that could benefit translational and basic cancer research back in Ukraine and also offer them the opportunity of clinical experiences,” El-Deiry said.

Verovkina acknowledged the irony of how she came to Brown: “This is because of a very sad and terrible reason,” she said. “But it is a really amazing and exceptional opportunity for us to learn.”

The oncologist who became a refugee

In Ukraine, Ryspayeva led a team that conducted clinical trials to treat various cancer malignancies at the Israeli Oncological Hospital, about 40 kilometers outside of Kyiv. She lived in the capital with her 25-year-old daughter, who is a medical student, but the Russian invasion made her commute almost impossible — people were leaving the city in a panic, gas pumps were empty, and the roads were jammed. When a house a few doors down from hers was hit by a bomb, Ryspayeva felt that she had to leave the city, if not the country.

After a stopover in western Ukraine, Ryspayeva and her daughter were able to move in with an aunt in Denmark and receive protection from the Danish government. She learned to speak Danish and applied for jobs as a medical researcher and oncologist, but because of her status as a war refugee, she wasn’t eligible for the type of professional jobs that suited her education and experience.

As months passed, Ryspayeva grew frustrated that she wasn’t able to use her skills, training and knowledge to help people with cancer. She felt guilty that she was safe abroad while other medical professionals were living and working in such dangerous conditions in Ukraine. Although she was sometimes able to assist in translating for Ukrainian refugees who’d been injured in bomb attacks, she yearned to do more.

“I just wanted to work at a hospital,” Ryspayeva said about her time in Denmark. “I wanted to see patients, any patients.”

Eventually, a colleague reached out to tell her that medical schools in other countries were offering to hire oncologists from Ukraine. She immediately sent her C.V. for consideration. First came a raft of refusals; then an acceptance that, crushingly, turned into a refusal; and then potential offers that became mired in bureaucracy.

That’s when Wafik El-Deiry called.

El-Deiry had been in touch with Nataliya Kovalchuk from Stanford University, who founded Help Ukraine Group to provide aid to oncology programs across Ukraine. Through the organization, El-Deiry heard about two stellar medical oncologists, Ryspayeva and Verovkina, and arranged to interview them as soon as possible.

“I was glad to receive this invitation,” said Ryspayeva, who had visited the United States previously to attend cancer conferences. “I had seen the level of education and medical service in the U.S., and it was my dream to receive knowledge here.”

El-Deiry also used social media to help connect Ukrainian cancer scientists to opportunities in safer parts of the world.

“There is a window of opportunity to help — there’s no time to waste,” he urged the global cancer community in March 2022. “It is not too early to do something positive. This includes connecting scientists and clinicians in Ukraine as well as Russia to support those who wish to leave or are otherwise endangered.”

After months of uncertainty, confusion, frustration and disappointment, both Ryspayeva and Verovkina received news that there were jobs waiting for them in at Brown.

“Really, I didn't believe it,” Ryspayeva said, her voice breaking. She still becomes emotional when she talks about how she came to Providence in March. “I’m so thankful to Brown, to Dr. El-Deiry and to the other professors who offered to bring me here.”

A big impact in a short time

The physician-scientists started working even before they’d had time to settle into their host country. Verovkina had only been in the U.S. for a few days when she and Ryspayeva accompanied El-Deiry to Orlando, Florida, for the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Over the past six months, the physician-scientists have attended Legorreta Cancer Center and translational research meetings, seminars and program retreats. Although they are not licensed to practice medicine in the U.S., they are getting clinical experience by attending with El-Deiry, who directs the joint program in cancer biology at Brown University and the Lifespan Cancer Institute, in clinics, tumor board review meetings, and rounds at Rhode Island Hospital.

They’re also conducting research. Verovkina is studying the side effects of immune blockade therapy with the goal of finding ways to minimize side effects. Ryspayeva is investigating potential breast cancer treatments.

The NCI, where Verovkina worked, is among Ukraine’s best-known clinics. Yet because of how clinical trials are organized and sponsored in her country (mostly by industry partners, she said), she is gaining valuable experience with phase I clinical trials, which are usually the first study phases to involve people.

“Phase I clinical trials are really rare in Ukraine,” Verovkina said. “Here, I can see, I can read, I can learn how this trial is conducted, how the results are analyzed. So, it's really great opportunity.”

“ These are amazing people who we are delighted to have amongst us and could have a future here in different roles. ”

Dr. Wafik S. El-Deiry Director of the Legorreta Cancer Center at Brown University

El-Deiry said that the visiting professors have been a major asset to Brown’s scientific and medical community.

“The unique contribution to the field of oncology in terms of innovation that physician-scientists bring is very important,” El-Deiry said. “As I’ve gotten to know Dinara and Nataliia over the past few months, I’ve become impressed with their knowledge, acumen and clinical expertise in oncology. These are amazing people who we are delighted to have amongst us and could have a future here in different roles.”

An uncertain future at home and abroad

As of Fall 2023, war in Ukraine wages on. In Providence, Verovkina and Ryspayeva continue to conduct research and collaborate with Brown medical students and Legorreta Cancer Center oncologists and researchers. Ryspayeva is living in Brown faculty housing. After a stressful search, Verovkina ultimately found an apartment within walking distance to work and to a middle school for her son.

El-Deiry has reached out to professional societies and government and academic institutions to explore potential ways to assist Verovkina and Ryspayeva when their visiting professorships at Brown end in early 2024.

“I realized that as much effort has been dedicated to short-term help, the war continues and so do the problems of the displaced scholars, clinical trials in Ukraine and contamination of the environment that will increase cancer in the future,” El-Deiry said. “If we could allocate 0.1% of the $43.9 billion the U.S. has committed in support of Ukraine on people doing cancer research rather than on guns, that would be more positive.”

While El-Deiry wants to celebrate what the University and the Legorreta Cancer Center have done during these extreme times, he thinks there’s an opportunity for international collaboration to become even more robust.

“We’re trying to look at what else we can do,” he said, “now that we have some Ukrainians who are anchored here who could now lead collaborations with their colleagues at Ukraine, and could also help other oncologists and physician-scientists from Ukraine who are coming here to the U.S.”

Verovkina and Ryspayeva remain resolutely positive.

“I hope we will be able to continue here, or continue to collaborate from Ukraine,” Verovkina said. “But this year is mostly, I would say, investing in yourself, your learning, your practical experience, expanding professional networks and professional friendships, and meeting with colleagues.”

A year is not enough time to finish everything she wants to do, Ryspayeva concurred. But, she said, it’s a start.