Vera’s office is tucked away in a beautiful lab space under the Walnut Street Bridge. Her office is bright and filled with plants and photos of her adventures. (Bungee jumping and fishing, just to name a few!) When we arrived, she was finishing up a cup of tea and welcomed us into her office.
Vera grew up in the western region of the Ukraine, in a town that sounds as though it belongs in a fairy tale. Quaint and very old, the town was established in 1375. "We have a castle and a monastery. It's very cool. There is a lot of room for imagination in that little town where I grew up."
Despite her early interest in science, she did not pursue it seriously until her mid-twenties. Instead, Vera attended college for piano. Living in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, she explained that the culture of her home country played a role in this decision. "I didn't want to work for the state. I didn't want to choose a profession where someone was telling me what to do. Music was a far as possible out of politics. I could be myself by doing music. So I went to Music College. It was a great experience. It was like hiding away from real life." After finishing conservatory, she knew that playing piano for the rest of her life would not make her happy. She felt she was not a great piano player—despite finishing first in her class! "[I] wanted to go explore the world. So I went to Moscow, the capitol of the Soviet Union. I'm going to the big city and I'll find my way there."
Upon moving to Moscow, Vera enrolled in business school to pursue her MBA. While in business school, she focused on technology ventures, graduating with 3 patents. However, "While in business school I realized it was not my cup of tea. I'm not interested in business. Not interested in going into the real world and making money." Instead, she was interested in the creative process she stumbled upon within the technology projects she pursued during business school. These projects involved irradiating fruits for food preservation.
She was certain she wanted to go to graduate school. "So, what do you do? You call your friends."
Her contacts recommended she apply for a graduate student position within the Department of Radiation Biology at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. "The Academy of Sciences is like the holy grail of sciences. It's the institution of science." The Academy has been around in one form or another since the year 800, yet was formally founded in 1724 by Peter the Great.
I didn't want to choose a profession where someone was telling me what to do. Music was a far as possible out of politics. I could be myself by doing music."
Despite being awarded a position as a PhD student, Vera had to play catch-up during her first year-- she had never taken a University-level science course! She studied for and took several biology course exams by herself, in addition to performing research. "[The Academy] was a temple [of science]. And it was fabulous. I was very happy. But of course I was very scared. I didn't have a University degree [in science]." Yet, these initial dips in confidence did not deter her. "I was studying biophysics, the chronic exposure of biological [systems] to gamma rays. It was very cool. It was extremely exciting. In a way, I was touching [the things] I had read in those magazines [as a child]. It was my golden years."
As she neared the end of her PhD, she had become interested in what was occurring at the cellular level during radiation exposure. During her PhD, she was studying "…how chronic exposure to radiation affected the metabolic state of plants and seeds. I was looking at global outcomes. Growth, proliferation, activation of enzymes. At that point I realized, no matter what is happening globally, it all begins first in the cell. Through signal transduction. You change information within [the cells] and this information affects function." To further explore this newfound interest, Vera pursued a position in the Cardiovascular Institute in the Academy of Medical Sciences. (When a position was not available right away, she volunteered in the lab! Don't worry; they eventually hired her as a full-time post-doc.)
"That was great. That was a world-class lab."
Her research mentor at the Cardiovascular Institute was also the director of the exchange program between the Soviet Union and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in the United States. "Even in that very, very Cold War world, that was the only warm, little stream between nations. Science and health." At one point, there was an opportunity for her to come to the University of Pennsylvania as a visiting scholar within this program. She took the opportunity; it was her first trip to the US.
At Penn, there was a researcher working on signaling in airway smooth muscle. She thought, "…why not? I know how to grow cells. Let's go to America and study airway smooth muscle cell growth." She developed two new assays while she was working at Penn. "It was like paradise here. It was just heaven. Things worked and I was asked to come here and work as a post-doc. It took me a week to think about it. [In Russia] I had a very good life, in terms of social [life] and where I was living. But, work was not good. The most important factor was that my knowledge was appreciated [in the US]. That was an absolutely new feeling for me. [In the Soviet Union] it was a very different culture. It was like everyone was disposable."
"It was worth it-- leaving the life I had set-up in Moscow…downtown apartment and what not. And coming here and starting from scratch." The airline even lost her two suitcases that she brought with her during her move to the US. "I came to the US, just with my carry-on! It was very symbolic, I thought."
Even in that very, very Cold War world, that was the only warm, little stream between nations. Science and health."
"Go for the gene, identify function, and understand the pathology. If it is mutated or dysfunctional, what is then broken in the signaling pathways? Rare diseases are an absolute gold mine [of information]."
Currently, Vera is focused on studying Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM). LAM is a progressive lung disease that typically strikes women during their childbearing years, causing disorderly smooth muscle growth and resulting in obstruction of the airways. She and her team have made important strides toward developing a treatment plan for LAM. In 2002, she discovered the gene and signaling pathway that causes the dysfunctional growth of smooth muscle in this rare lung disease (in human cells!).
The next question she asked was: What drugs are currently on the market and could be applied to influence the mTOR pathway? She settled on rapamycin, which was first studied in a custom animal model and then in humans. Today, she is leading a clinical trial that includes a combination therapy of rapamycin and simvastatin. "[It is] better to do cocktail with low doses of drugs, rather than high doses with lots of side effects." She is currently on the hunt for additional drug options that target the multitude of pathways responsible for LAM.
In addition to helping patients who suffer from this rare disease, Vera points out that it has also been an important opportunity to learn about many biological processes. "From LAM we learned so much about tumor suppressors and the regulation of mTOR, a key metabolic switch in cells." These findings contribute to the knowledge base to understand other cancers, as well as metabolic disorders."
And as Vera learned very young, knowledge is power, right?
P.S. Congrats to Dr. Krymskaya on her recent promotion to Full Professor of Medicine!
Rare diseases are an absolute gold mine [of information]."