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It’s All in the Blood
October 29, 2010   
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Prof. Tadeusz Robak, head of the Hematology Clinic at the Medical University of £ód¼, talks to Danuta K. Gruszczyńska.

You used to be a clinical pharmacologist. Why did you decide to go into oncology?

I worked for many years as a clinical pharmacologist, starting in 1973, at the Nicolas Copernicus Hospital in £ód¼. The clinical pharmacology unit was integrated with the internal medicine unit, which specialized in hematology. I defended my doctoral dissertation in 1979 and eight years later obtained my postdoctoral degree in medicine on the basis of a work entitled “The Application of Monoclonal Antibodies in Assessing the Antigen Structure of Hematopoietic Cells in Direct Studies and Clonogenic Tests in Vitro in Healthy Subjects and Patients with Myeloid Leukemias.” I became a professor six years after that.

One of the most important events in my life was a research fellowship at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and a British Council scholarship that took me to Hammersmith Hospital in London in 1983-84, where I worked with the world’s leading hematologists, professors John M. Goldman, Daniel Catovsky and David A. G. Galton, who developed modern oncohematology in Europe and worldwide. Prof. Goldman was one of the main inventors of bone marrow transplant methods, Prof. Catovsky’s focus was on lymphoproliferative disorders (chronic lymphoid leukemia). My main field of interest was the pathogenesis of leukemia as well as bone marrow transplants. During my two years at that hospital, I was truly formed as a modern physician. Today I still look at medicine with those events and that research visit in mind. The contacts I established then continue to this day. I became a full professor in 1993, and was appointed head of the Hematology Clinic at the Copernicus Hospital in 1997.

What made your research famous around the world?

I focused on oncohematology from the start, and especially leukemias as the most frequent diseases of the hematopoietic system. An important moment thanks to which we gained a global presence was our collaboration with two chemists from Warsaw, professors Zygmunt Kazimierczuk and Pawe³ Grieb, who synthesized a new drug, 2-chlorodeoxyadenosine (Cladribine). At the time, a group of drugs called purine nucleoside analogs was very popular and widely investigated in the world. Thanks to these chemists and the fact that they synthesized Cladribine in Poland, we were able to conduct experimental and clinical tests on this drug. It is very effective in hairy cell leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and in lymphomas. The world was concentrating on another similar drug, Fludarabine, but our Cladribine was more easily available and cheaper. We carried out many clinical tests and were able to publish some major papers in leading international periodicals, including Blood, British Journal of Hematology, Journal of Clinical Oncology, and Cancer. The Polish Adult Leukemia Study Group (PALG) was established around that time. Within this clinical research organization I specialized in lymphocytic leukemia and became the leader of a group investigating this specific leukemia. We conducted three very important randomized trials to assess the drug. They were published in Blood, Journal of Clinical Oncology, and Cancer. These papers are very often cited. For example, Blood recently published an overview about Cladribine that cites 23 papers from Polish research centers, mainly from our clinic. This proves that the results of our research have gained international recognition, that our publications are noticed and many researchers cite them.

You are one of those scientists whose research has had a major impact on the development of world medicine. You have been named an Eminent Scientist of the Year 2010. Can you tell us something more about the award?

In December 2009 I received a letter from the International Research Promotion Council saying that the organization’s scientific committee had decided to award me this title in the field of oncohematology in Europe, for a paper on Cladribine published in Cancer last year. Of course, this wasn’t just my work. I was helped by my team at the Hematology Clinic in £ód¼ and worked with other Polish centers and chemists.

We test many different drugs, and pharmaceutical companies want to have research conducted at our clinic. We are leaders in many international research projects of this kind, but Cladribine was the beginning. Of course, in science it takes years to build one’s position; it’s not just one discovery but a series of events, tests and discoveries. I think the fact that we began researching this drug enabled our clinic to win international acclaim.

Prof. Tadeusz Robak is a member of many scientific organizations, including the Polish Society of Hematology and Transfusion Medicine (PTHiT), the American Society of Hematology (ASH), the European Hematology Association (EHA), and the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO). He has been a member of the ESMO Faculty since 2006, and a member of the scientific council of a respected U.S. foundation called the Hairy Cell Leukemia Consortium since 2009.

Robak has written and co-authored over 500 scientific papers, many of which have been published in respected international periodicals. He has also written monographs and textbooks on the clinical pharmacology of cancer drugs (together with Prof. J. Drzewoski), on the biology and pharmacology of cytokines, on Cladribine and other purine analogs, and is the editor and co-author of a textbook on the rudiments of clinical hematology.

In 1991 he was appointed editor-in-chief of the quarterly Acta Haematologica Polonica and holds this position to this day. He is also a member of the editorial boards of many scientific journals, including Current Medicinal Chemistry, Advances in Hematology, Advances in Hematological Malignances, Recent Patents of Anticancer Drug Discovery, The Open Leukemia Journal, Leukemia and Lymphoma, Acta Clinica et Morphologica and others. He is a reviewer for leading specialist periodicals such as Lancet, Lancet Oncology, Blood, Leukemia Research, Clinical Cancer Research, Expert Review of Anticancer Therapy, Human Biology, Leukemia, Leukemia and Lymphoma, European Journal of Hematology, Haematologica, Drugs, Biodrugs, Drugs and Aging, Expert Opinion in Pharmacotherapy.

He is also vice-chairman of the Polish Adult Leukemia Study Group (PALG) and chairman of the PALG-CLL subgroup.
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