Mikhail Chesnokov, Russian cancer expert: ‘There was a chance I’d be sent to the front’

After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the biochemist escaped Russia and joined the National Cancer Research Center in Madrid to find a cure for pancreatic cancer

Russian biochemist Mikhail Chesnokov, photographed in the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, in Madrid, on June 27, 2023
Russian biochemist Mikhail Chesnokov, photographed in the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, in Madrid, on June 27, 2023Samuel Sánchez
Manuel Ansede

Russian biochemist Mikhail Chesnokov could have ended up with an assault rifle at the front in Ukraine, crushed in the battle of Bakhmut, just like thousands of other soldiers his age. But instead, he has recently joined a scientific center in Madrid to search for a cure for pancreatic cancer.

Chesnokov — who was born in Moscow 35 years ago — fled Russia in September of 2022, after President Vladimir Putin’s decision to order a chaotic mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russian civilians. They were going to be forced to take part in the invasion of Ukraine.

“I’ve never held a gun, I don’t know how to fight. I’m very peaceful. [Maybe] I look a bit aggressive… but it’s just because I like rock and heavy metal,” Chesnokov explains with a smile. He receives EL PAÍS at his new place of work in Madrid: the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), one of the best oncology institutes in the world.

The scientist clearly remembers the day Putin announced the “partial mobilization” of hundreds of thousands of young men — a measure that was taken due to the shortage of professional soldiers. “It was on September 21. I was 95% convinced that they were going to close the borders for anyone [of military age],” Chesnokov recalls. The biochemist had already submitted his application to the Friends of CNIO program — an initiative financed by 2,400 donors to recruit promising researchers for a period of two years. “I was terrified of winning one of the spots and not being able to leave Russia [because of the closed borders]. And there was also the possibility that they would recruit me and send me to the front, although it was a small possibility, because [the government was] supposedly trying to not recruit PhDs,” explains Chesnokov. “So, I went to Kazakhstan.”

The Russian biochemist flew from Moscow to Astana — the Kazakh capital — amidst the mobilization chaos, with long lines of citizens of military age trying to escape Russia. After a six-month-long wait alone in Kazakhstan, Chesnokov achieved his dream: he got a contract to work in Madrid with oncologist Paco Real, an international leader in pancreatic tumor research.

Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest of common tumors, with a survival of just 10% five years post-diagnosis. In 2018, Paco Real’s team discovered that a protein — NR5A2 — acts as a switch that controls the inflammation of the pancreas. When protein levels are low, inflammatory mechanisms are activated: subsequently, the risk of pancreatic cancer increases. Each year, the tumor kills approximately half a million people around the world.

Chesnokov will concentrate his efforts on researching the NR5A2 protein at the CNIO. “The study is in its early stages and we don’t know where it may lead us. We could come up with an effective drug to treat pancreatic cancer. Or we might find a useful compound to prevent the tumor in [high-risk] patients, or it could be a drug to prevent pancreatitis and reduce the chances of developing the cancer,” he explains

Russian biochemist Mikhail Chesnokov, outside the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, in Madrid
Russian biochemist Mikhail Chesnokov, outside the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, in Madrid Samuel Sánchez

Mikhail emphasizes that he does not offer his opinion on the invasion of Ukraine for personal reasons related to his family. He emphasizes that his intention is to draw attention to the obstacles that any Russian citizen faces now, regardless of their political stance. “Both February 24, 2022—the start of the invasion—and September 21, 2022—the military mobilization—were events that changed my life. The first one initiated my efforts to start looking for options to leave Russia, while the second one forced me to immediately leave the country without further preparations,” he states.

The Russian researcher recounts the adventures he has experienced in recent years with a mixture of frustration and humor. Chesnokov — who holds a PhD from Moscow State University — joined the University of Illinois Chicago at the end of 2019, working in the laboratory of Andrei Gartel, a Russian geneticist who moved to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “My wife and I were completely happy. Then came 2020 and the pandemic. Everything closed down,” he laments. His partner — a neuroscientist — had to suspend her job search and lock herself up at home.

“And then came the protests from the Black Lives Matter movement (after the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020),” the biochemist recalls. “In Chicago, the central areas were really damaged by the riots. I saw broken windows, looting, several shootings, even from the lab windows.” His words contrast with the chirping of birds around his new research center, located in a hundred-year-old garden next to the Cuatro Torres business park, in the north of Madrid. Chesnokov left Chicago and returned to Russia in 2021, with the idea of pursuing his degree at Moscow State University. Then, the war broke out.

Paco Real remembers that the Russian biochemist wrote to him for the first time in 2015, to tell him that he was interested in working in his laboratory. Chesnokov didn’t have a particularly striking resume back then, but the Spanish oncologist saw other virtues. “There are people who, when you talk to them, you realize the passion they have for science. And there’s nothing more important [than that]. Intelligence is important, but passion is essential. And [Chesnokov] has three essential things: intelligence, passion and persistence,” Real affirms. The Spanish researcher — born in Barcelona in 1957 — immigrated to the United States in 1981 to work at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City. “I’m very sensitive to people who have to emigrate for whatever reason. No one emigrates for pleasure,” Real emphasizes.

Chesnokov is still stunned by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Everything changed in February [of 2022]. I know ‘everything changed’ sounds like big loud words, but that’s exactly what happened. Nobody expected that a military conflict of this magnitude would start in the middle of Europe in the 21st century,” he sighs.

The biochemist is saddened by the blockade of Russian science, as well as the barriers faced by scientists who want to leave Russia. “European countries do themselves a disservice, because they reject potentially very good Russian researchers or students. And they don’t hurt Russia, because most of [the government’s] income comes from oil and gas, not from science. The blockade of Russian scientists is useless, it only destroys the lives of individuals,” Chesnokov argues. “This makes it very difficult for people who disagree with the government to go to another country. It limits their opportunities to escape,” he warns.

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