Julia Polak - Transcript Summary

Julia PolakDirector of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Centre at Imperial College, London

Interview location: Her flat in Chelsea Harbour, London 
Interview date
: 25th July 2007

Key Themes:  New TechnologiesResearch versus Clinical Work


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Section 1

  • Begins with how she came to be working in Britain. Grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe to Argentina and Polak grew up there in a settled middle-class family. She was expected to take up a profession – “It was not a choice!” – and she decided to do medicine.

  • Having got her medical degree she came to UK with her husband to train “for a year”, but they never went back: “The situation in Argentina deteriorated a lot – it was the time of all the 'disappeared' people.”
  • From the beginning she was interested in pathology “because of the research angle... the mechanisms [of disease] and the science.” She has been in academia throughout her career, which suits her temperament.
  • Talks about early experiences in ‘learning the trade’.
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Section 2

  • Relates the dramatic and extraordinary story of her heart-lung transplant operation aged 56.
  • Makes the point that the transplant “completely changed my life and my work! I thought I had to do something that relates to what happened to me, and I wanted to study more of the pulmonary hypertension. But then the new field started: tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, stem cells. You could say that I would have gone into that field anyway, because I always liked to be into the exciting new areas. Or you could say it was the influence of the transplant. Take your pick!”
  • Describes presenting her own diseased lungs as the pathologist at a multidisciplinary medical meeting attended by more than 1000 people. It was an example of her extraordinary capacity for detachment: “I remember after my transplant, people said, ‘You'll need psychotherapy, some support...’ But I'm not that kind; I'm not the reflective sort.”
  • She is currently one of the longest-lived heart and lung transplant recipients, and discusses what it is like to live with donor organs.
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Section 3

  • Returns to the discussion of her early career, and relates the story of her involvement in the discovery of the gut endocrine system and neuro-endocrine system using the (then) new technique of immunocytochemistry.
  • They started looking at diseases of the gut such as coeliac and Crohn’s disease. “Then we said: if the gut has the same embryological origin as the lung, let's try the lung. What will happen in [diseases of] the lung]?” This question led to collaboration with famous transplant surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub, who provided lots of diseased lungs for their research.
  • “We were looking for the neurotransmitters or the cells which are in the airway epithelium... to see whether there were alterations. But I didn't make it... I ended up in a stretcher being his patient, and donating my own lungs for research!” On her recovery she went into the field of regenerative medicine.
  • Talks about the hard work involved in validating the technique of immunocytochemistry, which she pioneered. “This technique now is used in departments of pathology all over the world routinely.”
  • Immunocytochemistry was also crucial to her next project – discovering the role of endogenous nitric oxide, a gas most often associated with exhaust fumes. She describes in some detail how the technique works.
  • Nitric oxide turned out to be “a very big field. Amazing! And of course, it led to the Nobel Prize.”
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Section 4

  • Describes her work on the frontiers of research into regenerative medicine, and the establishment of the multidisciplinary centre for this at Imperial College in London. Cites examples of diseases which might be treated this way, and describes in detail the strategies being explored.
  • She’s candid about the formidable challenges ahead, not least the fact that currently they have only a tiny amount of material to work with. “That's the biggest challenge now -- we need to have robust ways of mass producing identical [stem] cells for particular diseases...You need mass production, industrial-scale production, of things for clinical application. Nobody knows how to do it.”
  • Muses that “the timelines of the conventional pathologist are totally different from those of research. A pathologist wants to save life now; they are aware of all the things that can be done, and they can suggest a course of action and see the result. But I might not see any of my research [come to fruition] in my lifetime.”
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Section 5

  • Makes the point that Britain has been slow to capitalise on its scientific discoveries. Describes the company she has set up with bio-engineer Larry Hench and others. “Doing research and writing papers about your discoveries is beautiful and you become famous. But in real life, you want to save lives…and to protect your discoveries, and make money to bring it back to the research.”
  • Started working with Hench on repairing bone, but current work is on finding ways to culture cells in three dimensions. “There is lots of research being done all over the place on cultured cells two-dimensionally in a Petri dish. But we are three-dimensional... the cells talk to each other and talk to the surrounding tissue.”
  • Discusses potential clinical applications and cites some early trials. Gives a few amusing examples of where sticking to the rules could be counterproductive.
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Section 6

  • Talks affectionately and with humour about the trials of being a working mother.
  • Returns to her Latin American heritage and tells of how her brother-in-law ‘disappeared’. “When he was taken away it virtually killed his father – he died eight or nine years later, but I think he died of a broken heart.”
  • Talks very briefly about her charitable Trust, and the Julia Prize aimed at encouraging young women in science. “I do strongly believe we really need to nurture women [in science], because they lack confidence.”





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