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Julia Polak

Julia Polak Director 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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Regenerative medicine -- in my unbiased opinion -- will rewrite the books of medicineJulia Polak has been at the cutting edge of medical research since the late 1960s, and is one of the most cited scientists in the world.  She was among the first to demonstrate the existence of a hormone system in the gut, and was on the team that discovered how nitric oxide is made in cells throughout our bodies and governs a wealth of vital biological processes. 

In 1995 she was doing research into a rare lung condition, when she herself collapsed with the disease and had to have a heart and lung transplant to save her life.  Later she presented her own case at a medical meeting at Hammersmith Hospital, and says of her lungs, "They were lovely in terms of pathology…[But] it was an extreme case of pulmonary hypertension, and I couldn't imagine how I had managed to breathe!"

Polak is one of the longest survivors of a heart and lung transplant in the UK, and the experience changed her life course.  She switched to the newly emerging science of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine -- which aims to find new ways of repairing damaged organs using patients' own stem cells -- that will eventually replace the need for donor transplants.  This, she believes, is the future:  “Regenerative medicine -- in my unbiased opinion! -- will rewrite the books of medicine.”  

Polak grew up in Argentina, to where her grandparents had emigrated from Eastern Europe.  She and her husband Daniel Catovsky, a haematologist, came to UK in 1967 for a year's postgraduate study, and never went back. The science in Britain was exciting and back home their own families were being persecuted by the military junta.

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