The inaugural meeting of the "Moscow Antibody Club" was held on Monday 8th December 1997, and I had the great honour to be invited to give the opening lecture, entitled "In search of the ideal therapy. The design and use of engineered antibodies" . The general theme for the meeting was "Antibody Engineering" and my lecture was then followed by two more, given by local Russian scientists with expertise in this area. The lectures were followed by questions and a general discussion. From my discussions with the organizers I learnt that the club is intended to have similar aims to the well established London Antibody Club, and hopefully will become a regular forum at which Moscow scientists based in different research institutes can meet, and stimulated by several formal presentations on a theme at each meeting, discuss mutual research interests.
I was originally contacted in July 97 by Dr. Catherine (Kasia) Hawrylowicz acting for the BSI and asking me if I would be prepared to accept an invitation by the Russian Immunology Society to visit Moscow and give a lecture on the topic of Antibody Engineering, sometime between October and the end of December. I was most honoured to receive this invitation and also considered it to be a good opportunity to visit Russia for the first time and I was happy to give my positive response shortly after returning from my summer vacation. Following this I was put in touch with Dr. Vladimir Nesmeyanov in Moscow who was to make all arrangements at the Moscow end. During frequent exchanges of e-mail I was given more details about the proposed talk to be given at the opening meeting of the "Moscow Antibody Club" and invited to also stay for a few extra days to allow time to talk with some of the interested scientists in Moscow as well as to allow time for some sight seeing. The BSI generously agreed to cover my travel expenses whilst the Russian Immunological Society would be my host in Moscow.
Arranging a suitable date turned out to take some time. The autumn term is a very busy one for me as I have both overall responsibility as organizer for the Pathology Departments third year undergraduate courses as well as being a principle lecturer and organizer of the Immunology option. This meant that the first convenient breaks in my schedule were towards the end of term in December. Some might consider this a strange time to want to visit Moscow with the probability of low temperatures and snow and ice, however those that know me will be aware I quite like cold weather and walking in the snow. My hobbies include alpine mountaineering, skiing and winter hill-walking, so I was not going to let worries of the weather concern me. The date for my talk was provisionally fixed for Monday 8th December and we set up applying for a visa and sorting out the other paperwork. All these arrangements went ahead without any problems and my passport and visa was returned promptly by the Russian Embassy in London.
I had eventually arranged with Vladimir Nesmeyanov that I would fly out on Friday 5th December and return on the evening of Tuesday 9th December. This would give me the weekend for some sight seeing and then two days in which to visit the Moscow institutes and to give my lecture. So on the evening of Friday 5th December after clearing the queues at immigration and customs, I found myself being met by Vladimir at Sheremetevo-2, Moscow's international Airport. It was cold and dark and we drove around the Moscow outer ring road for about an hour to a hotel in the outer suburbs in a south western district of the city, Kon'kovo, which I was to learn was close to the Shemyakin-Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry. After arriving at the hotel we made arrangements that I would be met the following morning at about 9am and shown around some of the sights of Moscow by two scientists from the Institute.
However I was caught out by the time difference and by the failure to set my alarm clock and at 9am the following morning when Vladamir rang up from the foyer I was still fast asleep my body content with it being 6am UK time. Vladimir introduced me to Dr Elena Kovalenko and Nadya Zelenova who were to be my guides for the day and we headed on foot towards the nearest Metro station, which turned out to be about 5-10 minutes walk away. The weather was cold, around about freezing point (in fact reasonably warm for Moscow in Winter!) and there was a six inch layer of snow on the ground. I saw lorries and bulldozers at work clearing the roads and a fair amount of traffic with a mixture of eastern European and western European vehicles, although I was pointed to large car parks at the base of the surrounding apartment blocks which were full of cars wrapped up for the winter in tarpaulin covers or in makeshift wooden box like shelters. Apparently many Russians take their cars off the road for the winter season. At the metro station my attention was caught by all of the small kiosks lining the underground passages, each one selling different collections of household goods and produces. Obviously these underground shopping precincts are protected from the winter weather conditions above. I learnt that to use the Moscow Metro there is a single tariff throughout the system and that the small plastic tokens which operate the barriers cost the equivalent of about 40 UK pence. The journey into central Moscow took about half an hour and on the way we had a chance to chat. We decided to hunt for some breakfast for me and then to visit some of the sights. I had previously forewarned Vladimir in my e-mails that I was a vegetarian as I though it might turn out to be a bit of a problem in Moscow but I learnt that Nadya was also a vegetarian and we stopped at a small road side cafe and had coffee and a pizza.
The main item they had arranged for me was a visit to the Kremlin museums, and then a quick tour of the city centre shops before being taken to the tourist office where they had booked me on an english speaking coach tour of the city tourist sites. We queued up for tickets and then entered the Kremlin. The first sights which caught my attention were objects like the giant mortars and cannons which looked far too big to work and also the equally giant Tsar's Bell from 1735 which is apparently over 200 tonnes in weight and cracked whilst being doused with water during a fire. The architecture of the Kremlin buildings was very interesting and of a style which was new to me. The Cathedrals with their very ornate onion domes, the highly decorated interiors with hundreds and hundreds of historic painted icons ordaining the walls and ceilings were quite magnificent. There were many families visiting the sights. Elena and Nadya proved to be excellent hosts and we chatted away about the buildings, there history and also compared this with my experiences in other countries in Western Europe. Later I was taken to see Red Square which was cordoned off whilst Lenin's Mausoleum was open for viewing, however I was told that I would be unable to visit as I was carrying a camera and there was no time to find a cloakroom to leave it in. Instead we headed off for the Gosudarstvenniy Universaliy Magazin (GUM) store which had some very ornate balconies and many small stores mostly selling fashion goods at prices which seemed to be way out of the reach of the majority of Russian citizen's.
Following lunch I was taken to the Tourist Office where I was introduced to an english speaking guide and along with a small collection of other english speaking tourists who turned out to be German, Dutch and Danish we were taken on a three hour long coach tour of the sights. We drove around the city in and out on the radial roads from the city centre and occassionally got out to see the the buildings more closely. I had a chance to walk around Red Square which was now open and to take a look at St Basil's Cathedral. We also stopped across the river from the Kremlin and were able to see the whole Palace walls a view I had often seen on TV news reports from Moscow. As it was getting dark we were taken to a view point overlooking the city lights below and on turning round I was confronted with the impressive sight of at the end of a long road, the main University Building, which I was told housed over 14,000 students who lived and studied in the one large tower and wings. The building itself, 340 metres tall and built in the early 50's, is designed in the so called "Wedding Cake" style used for several similar civic buildings throughout the city. Having looked over the stalls and bargained with their operators selling souvenir dolls and other crafts, most of which seemed to be doing very poor business on a cold December Saturday we returned to the Coach and were taken back to the city centre. I was shown the way to the Metro and travelled back out to the Hotel.
In the evening I had a telephone call from Vladimir telling me that unfortunately he had a bad eye infection and thus would be unable to come out with me on the Sunday, but that he had arranged for another guide for me. The following day I was met at my hotel by another student from the Institute, Gulya who I discovered was a native Muscovite and who thus knew the city very well. We had a pleasant day visiting the main Pushkin Museum of Art which housed an extremely interesting collection of paintings. I noted that the gallery was obviously a popular Sunday venue with Russian families. It took several hours to look around the gallery and Gulya proved to be a knowledgeable and informative guide. Afterwards we again looked around some of the sights in the centre including the Kremlin gardens with children tabogoning down the snow covered slopes and then the Theatre Square with it's familiar statue of Apollo's chariot being pulled by four prancing horses. Again it was getting dark and I thanked Gulya for an interesting day and made my way back out to the Hotel on the Metro.
The following day, Monday, I was collected from my Hotel and taken to the Shemyakin-Ovchinnikov Institute. After all of Dr. Vladimir Nesmeyanov's hard work in arranging the visit he was unfortunately still not well enough to come into the Institute or to attend the seminar. However he had again been busy making arrangements for me to be well looked after by several of his colleagues from the institute. It is a fairly modern Institute with large spacious laboratories in a tower block. The Institute seemed to be well equiped although I learnt from conversations with the scientists there that the main problems were in securing funds and grants to cover the consumables for the research. I had many interesting discussions with scientists from different Divisions within the Institute and amongst the laboratories I visited were those of Dr Nicolai Bovin a specialist in carbohydrate chemistry and interested in carbohydrate-carbohydrate interactions a research area of increasing biological importance. Another long discussion I had was with Dr. Vadim Mesyanzhinov an expert on bacteriophage who I learnt had spent time in Cambridge with Cambridge Antibody Technology and with Dr. Greg Winter sorting out some problems associated with phage infectivity and then devising new vectors for phage display. Dr. Mesyanzhinov was to talk after me, at the Antibody Club that evening, on his recent work on display of recombinant proteins on the tail fibres of T-even bacteriophage. I also visited the Immunochemistry Laboratories in the Immunology Division but unfortunately ran out of time before I could see the Cellular Immunology Laboratories where Elena and Nadya worked!
I was taken to the lecture theatre by Elena and and was introduced to the chairman for the evening Dr Raif Vasilov. The inaugural meeting of the Moscow Antibody Club was introduced and by Dr. Vasilov, who outlined the idea that the club should turn out to be a forum for better informal communication between scientists at different Moscow Institutes all interested in the Biological and Medical sciences. We then delivered our talks all three being on different aspects of work on antibody engineering. These were followed up by quite a number of questions and a lengthy discussion, demonstrating considerable interest from the audience on this topic. Eventually the meeting came to a close a Dr Vasilov outlined proposals for the next meeting.
After the meeting I was determined that I should make time to visit the Cellular Immunology Laboratories after all of the kindness shown to me by Elena and Nadya in showing me around the Kremlin on the Saturday. So I spent some time looking around their laboratories and then joined members of the Division for a coffee and long discussion. It very quickly came around to about 8pm and I had been invited to visit Vladimir and his wife at their apartment for a meal. I said goodbye and thanks to everyone at the Institute and was taken over to a nearby apartment block. I was to learn that the Institute had associated with it several local apartment blocks in which many of the scientists were housed and there was also leisure and sports facilities provided as part of membership of the Institute as well. It was a very pleasant evening, Vladimir and his wife had prepared an excellent supper and we were able to have a long and informal conversation about topics such as science, and also of course a comparison of lifestyles in Russia and Moscow with the UK and Cambridge. At least in part this evening spent in converstaion with Vladimir was a partial compensation for the fact that after all his efforts in planning my visit he had missed out on the main event due to illness! After an excellent evening I remember making my way back to my Hotel, only a short distance away, at about 2am in the morning.
On the Tuesday morning I packed and checked out of the hotel and was met again by Dr Raif Vasilov, director of the Biotechnologia Institute which I learnt was actually a recently privitized Joint Stock Company which had as it's goal the commercial exploitation of several biotechnological products. One of their interesting technologies was the production of filter compounds for the removal of toxic contaminants and pollutants during purification protocols.
We also discussed at length antibody engineering and it's possible application in several of their projects and I gave a small informal presentation to a small group of scientists from the Institute and they also presented aspects of their work. Then following lunch I was driven to the Airport and several hours later found myself back at Heathrow Airport and then after the usual traffic problems on the M25 arriving back in Cambridge by coach in the late evening.
Many thanks to everyone for the invitation to Moscow and to those who made this trip such a memorable and enjoyable time. In particular of course I would like to thank Vladimir Nesmeyanov for all of his arrangements, his wife for her hospitality, and Kasia Hawrylowicz for the arrangements made through the BSI. Special thanks of course go to Elena, Nadya and Gulya for giving up their time to act as such excellent hosts, showing me some of the sights of Moscow during the weekend. Two days is not really enough time to take in all of the sights of a city the size of Moscow! I wish them all well and I hope that the Moscow Antibody Club is a success.