Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak: leading medical research

Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak is a world-leading cardiovascular scientist and clinical academic. Her major research interests are in hypertension, cardiovascular genomics and systems medicine.

As well as being a pioneering scientist and Regius Professor of Medicine, she is an inspiring leader at the University of Glasgow as Vice Principal and Head of College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences.

Ben Kolb from the BHF Research Communications team spoke with her just after being awarded a Damehood and before the EU referendum.

“I am very worried about Brexit — it would not be good for science,” explains Professor Dominiczak. Having come to the UK from Gdańsk in Poland more than 30 years ago, she is acutely aware that science and scientists benefit when there are no borders.

“Two of my trainees, Christian Delles from Germany and Sandosh Padmanabhan from India, are now Professors leading their own labs. I am tremendously proud of them and what they have achieved.”

Professor Christian Delles (left) and Professor Sandosh Padmanabhan (right)

Passionate about both her research and the young people she has mentored, Professor Dominiczak is a great example to others in medical research. Having grown up in a communist state and lived with travel restrictions, it is easy to understand her concerns about any limitations that may come post-Brexit.

Medical role models

“I was attracted to medicine and research because I was interested in people and had strong role models — both of my parents were doctors.” Both were kidney specialists who worked to prevent kidney failure. She did her medical training in her home town. “I met researchers in medical school and became interested in research through them.” That interest took her to the University of Glasgow for her postgraduate studies.

With funding from the BHF, Professor Dominiczak was able to travel and work in a US lab. “I benefited enormously from the experience. We did excellent research and I returned to Glasgow with an experimental model that closely replicated human high blood pressure and stroke in a rat.” In Glasgow, she was then able to develop the model further and use it in her research. The model is still used today.

A builder and a changer

With the skills and experience acquired in the US, Professor Dominiczak was able to secure further BHF funding. “The BHF and its supporters and volunteers have been there throughout my career — the funding to go to the US, Project Grants, Programme Grants, a Senior Fellowship and a BHF Professorship.”

Before taking up a senior leadership role at the University of Glasgow, Professor Dominiczak was BHF Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine [more recently the title has changed to BHF Professor] at the University from 1998 to 2010. “As a BHF Chair, I could recruit and build teams at Glasgow. Now, as a Trustee, and a volunteer myself, I feel I am able to give a little bit back to the charity.”

Professor Dominiczak with a number of her fellow BHF Professors in 2006

But Professor Dominiczak’s funding from the BHF had benefits far beyond her own research, which is now pointing towards a molecule that could be used to protect against high blood pressure.

She was the driving force behind the building of the BHF Glasgow Cardiovascular Research Centre and was its Director from the opening in 2000 until 2010. “The new building was a big moment. Before we had the Centre we were working out of a glorified portakabin. Having a dedicated building definitely helped.” Since that building project, cardiovascular science at the University of Glasgow has gone from strength to strength. In 2013, the University became one of just six BHF Centres of Research Excellence across the UK.

BHF Glasgow Cardiovascular Research Centre

By then, Professor Dominiczak had taken up her senior leadership role at the University and recruited her successor — BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, Rhian Touyz, who came to the University from Canada, having studied in South Africa.

“Unfortunately I don’t have as much time for my research now. The College has over 2,200 staff, over 5,000 students and an annual turnover in excess of £200 million.” Professor Dominiczak has been at the centre of major changes at Glasgow — three faculties merged to form the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences in 2010 to foster greater interdisciplinary research. The previous structure had been in place for over 100 years.

Precision medicine

Nevertheless, Professor Dominiczak is still passionate about her research interests and is exploring how they can be applied on a much broader scale — beyond the cardiovascular arena. She has led a collaboration of four universities and four academic NHS Health Boards across Scotland to develop a public/private partnership in precision medicine with a current value of £20 million.

“As a doctor I want to be more able to give patients treatments and tests that are specific to them. This would greatly increase the chances of success. We want to be able to give the right treatment to the right patients at the right time.” They are looking at the genetic makeup of people and examining their responses to different drugs. “We can tell from a person’s DNA whether they are likely to respond well to a medicine so applying that knowledge could dramatically improve a patient’s experience of treatment,” she explains.

Recognising a life saving contribution

Professor Dominiczak has been a prolifically successful researcher — she has published over 370 peer reviewed papers in top peer-reviewed journals. In recognition of her services to medicine, she was awarded an OBE in 2005 and, shortly before this interview, she was awarded a DBE in recognition of her contribution to cardiovascular and medical science.

Despite all that she has achieved, Professor Dominiczak is keen to recognise how others have contributed to her career. “The DBE is a tremendous honour but I see this as recognition of the University of Glasgow team and many other teams I have worked with over the years.” Perhaps it is this selfless nature that drives her concern around Brexit and the future of the next generation of Anna Dominiczaks.

But no matter how leaving the EU may affect medical research, with leaders like Professor Dominiczak, we can be confident that UK cardiovascular science will continue to be strong and continue to improve and save lives.

Find out more about the BHF’s research at the University of Glasgow.