Top researcher takes helm at biotech center

FROM PARIS TO ROCKVILLE

November 23, 1992|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Staff Writer

ROCKVILLE -- For two decades, Roberto Poljak has had his head in the minutiae of molecules -- drawing three-dimensional pictures of particles too small to be seen under a microscope.

This month, he took a step back, becoming the head of the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology in Rockville. Though he will continue his research, Dr. Poljak will also direct a ,, staff of 40 other scientists.

Dr. Poljak left the Pasteur Institute in Paris -- where he had lifetime job security as head of the structural immunology laboratory -- to come to CARB, a small but respected center in Rockville that is part of Maryland's ambitious group of biotechnology institutes.

"At my age you have to think twice [about leaving a place]. You have to see something very attractive here," he said.

At Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, Dr. Poljak determined the first 3-D structure of an antibody, the protein in the body that attacks foreign intruders called antigens. And, in 1986 at the Pasteur Institute, he figured out how antibodies link with antigens.

Dr. Poljak, a gracious man with thick glasses and a French accent, was drawn to CARB in part by the state-of-the-art equipment in the laboratories -- an X-ray that measures how light is reflected off a molecule, so its structure can be determined, and computers that can spin out a three-dimensional-like

drawing of such molecules as a penicillin-degrading enzyme.

He sees his new professional home as "a small place. For it's small size, it is a high-quality place. It has great potential and well-known and respected people in the field."

PD CARB, a joint venture of the National Institute of Standards and

Technology and the University of Maryland, was established in 1984 to do basic research in molecular biology that would lead to collaborations with the biotechnology industry growing up around it along the Route 270 corridor in Montgomery County.

In an unusual partnership with local government, Montgomery County gave 50 acres and put up a bond issue to build a new building in Shady Grove that opened in 1987.

Mr. Poljak is known for his work with antibodies. A century ago scientists discovered antibodies, but they couldn't describe them until 1986, when Dr. Poljak, working with a collaborator in Paris, figured out how antibodies attack and knock out their foes. In essence, they found that there are 15 amino acids or sites on the antibody molecule that link with amino acids on the antigen.

"It had a tremendous impact on the field," said Eaton Lattman, a Johns Hopkins professor of biophysics at the School of Medicine, who worked with Dr. Poljak while at Hopkins. "Once these pictures of the molecules came out everyone began to use them."

In addition, Dr. Lattman said, the new information began to offer an explanation of one of the big mysteries of immunology. Scientists could never figure out how the human body could offer up defenses against things it had never seen before. But Dr. Poljak's work showed that the structure of the antibody included a "binding site" or a kind of adjustable hand that would bind to any unknown substance.

The practical application has been to help researchers, such as those in biotechnology companies, in designing synthetic antibodies against diseases.

"It told people it would be more difficult to make a vaccine," Dr. Poljak said.

Born in Argentina, Dr. Poljak grew up -- "scientifically speaking" -- in the United States, where he did his academic work. From 1962 to 1981 he was a professor at Johns Hopkins, but decided to leave for the position in Paris, which held the attraction of French culture and extraordinary art.

The move to the Washington suburbs will get him closer to his 32-year-old son and grandchild, he said.

Dr. Poljak takes the place of Thomas Poulas, who went to the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at the University of California at Irvine.

Both scientists have similar backgrounds, which provide a continuity for the staff, Dr. Poulas said. He believes the center should expand to a new building and triple in size from a staff of about 60 today to 125 in order to maintain a "high critical mass to make it truly exciting."

Dr. Poljak agrees and says that a proposal to build a second building is now under "active consideration," although there are questions about where the funding will come from.

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