03 Aug 2020
For Dr Anne Poljak, finding the mechanisms underlying cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and identifying disease biomarkers are fundamental not only for a better understanding of how the brain works in health and disease, but also for treatment and management of diseases and disorders which affect memory. Understanding disease mechanisms is an essential piece of the puzzle to determine causes of cognitive decline and discover new treatment approaches.
How did you get into researching the ageing brain?
When I finished my undergraduate studies, I had an opportunity to do an honours year. It was a tough, challenging year, and very different to what I had done before, but I found it quite enjoyable and so as a result have since steered towards research projects. I have worked at the Garvan Institute and in Biotech companies on research and development projects, most of which have focused on protein function, and proteins of therapeutic interest. Now at the University of New South Wales, my work involves use of a technique called mass spectrometry. This technique characterises molecules of biological and biomedical interest such as proteins, lipids and metabolites. During this period I also completed my PhD part time, working in the Faculty of Medicine with Professor Sachdev on Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, I looked at a number of disease factors including inflammation metabolism and vascular function.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
Several of my mentors in the mass spectrometry world, particularly Professor Mark Duncan and Professor George Smythe, also had an interest in the neurosciences and encouraged higher degree studies as an important step towards a research career. Alzheimer’s disease was of particular interest, since it affects such a large proportion of the older population and robs sufferers of such a personal part of their identity – memory.
Research is fascinating to me not only because of the potential for discovery, but also that the process itself is highly interesting and engaging; not dissimilar to solving puzzles.
There are key scientific questions which present challenges, and to solve the puzzle many techniques are often required to be used. There is often deliberation as to how this should be done and, importantly, in most circumstances it requires team effort. These thought-provoking, problem solving and multidisciplinary teamwork activities really appeal to me.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
Being at the University is a good place to start because you are always learning. Education is undeniably one of the protective factors for brain health. Meeting new challenges and trying new things is exercise for the brain. Physical exercise is also really good for you, though I tend to fall short here. I try to incorporate incidental exercise within my daily activities rather than attending formal classes. For example, I walk up the stairs rather than taking a lift or walk rather than take the car. Cognition is important - it is a valuable aspect of our lives and we have to protect it. Even if you do not end up getting a nasty disease like Alzheimer’s, maintaining a good level of cognition throughout life is part of good health and makes life more interesting.
What are you currently researching?
I am working closely with CHeBA, which is why you find me as a CHeBA affiliate. I continue to work quite closely with Professor Sachdev; looking at biomarkers and mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease with a particular focus on proteomics and lipidomics. A biomarker would be nice but it is not always that if you found a biomarker that you will understand the mechanism. The two do not necessarily go together and they focus on different problems; a biomarker would help disease diagnosis, whereas understanding the mechanism is the first step in finding a treatment and/or preventative measures. In my work with CHeBA I have increasingly taken on additional roles, such as supervising students. Mentoring young scientists is also an interesting and rewarding aspect of the research world, because each student has different abilities, skills and interests and they each have a different project which makes for a very stimulating environment. It is quite fun, stimulating and satisfying seeing their projects move forward and witnessing the students develop their reasoning and problem solving abilities. This time of their life can be quite stressful for them as they adjust to new techniques and challenges, so trying to make it engaging while maximising fun and minimizing stress is very important.
Why is your research important?
Finding a biomarker of Alzheimer’s disease would certainly help clinicians, because at the moment it tends to be a clinical assessment and there is no easy to use diagnostic marker which would aid clinicians. At the moment, the diagnosis itself can take quite a long time, whereas a quick clinical test would make things so much easier. Of course, understanding the mechanism of the disease is very important as well because it is the starting point towards finding a treatment or a cure. Dementia and in particular Alzheimer’s disease affects a large proportion of the ageing population. Discovering a diagnostic approach or, even more importantly, potential treatments or effective preventative strategies are critical to minimising the impact of this disease. I do not think dementia is an inevitable part of ageing, because many people live to quite old age without necessarily getting all the pathology that is associated with dementia. Nonetheless dementia is an ominous threat at older age and devastating for sufferers and their families making research in this area essential and invaluable.
Even postponing the disease by a few years using effective preventative measures would extend life quality.
Effective preventive and/or treatment measures would mean people may not lose all that personal information about themselves and their personal history of which dementia robs them. This is why research to understand the mechanism is crucial.
First and foremost, it is the interesting and fun people; the group is very warm and friendly and very much a team-effort group with a focus on sharing information and ideas and collaborating within a multidisciplinary environment. It is also complementary to my own background, which is a lab chemistry background, whereas CHeBA has more of a social and clinical focus. This makes for a stimulating interdisciplinary environment. Many opportunities have arisen there, which is really a credit to the senior staff of CHeBA and particularly Professor Perminder Sachdev, who have fostered a rich learning and research environment, collaborative effort both locally and internationally, and provided plentiful opportunities and support for personal development.
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
I am working hard towards either a biomarker or mechanism, and preferably both. Dementia is a difficult and complex disease to understand at the molecular level. A lot of molecular pathways are affected and a lot of people have been studying it for quite some time. It is a big challenge, but I hope that the work we are doing will help bring us forward towards identifying a biomarker, and to understanding the molecular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias better. These are my goals and aspirations and the multidisciplinary environment at CHeBA represents a fantastic opportunity to answer some of the perplexing questions about dementia. I’m hoping our work will move us in that direction.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. Dr Anne Poljak found that staying in touch with family and friends by phone or electronically helped maintain social connectedness, as did the company of her large orange cat which was untroubled by social isolation.
Dr Anne Poljak is an affiliate Adjunct Senior Lecturer with CHeBA. Dr Poljak is working in collaboration with CHeBA’s Co-Director Professor Perminder Sachdev to explore biomarkers and mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease and is particularly focused on proteomics and lipidomics. She obtained a Bachelor of Science with Honours from the University of Sydney and her PhD with the University of New South Wales. Dr Poljak is a Medical Researcher at UNSW and has previously worked in research organisations and the Biotechnology industry: the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Pacific BioTechnology and Biotech Australia.