So many good podcasts, not enough time in the day. That is what I thought when I first took a look at Nature Biotechnology's podcast series, First Rounders. The series is hosted by Brady Huggett and the list of fascinating guests is impressive: Anthony Atala (Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Co-Founder of Precise Bio), Nancy Simonian (President and CEO of Syros Pharaceuticals), and Carl June (Co-Founder of Tmunity Therapeutics and Professor of Immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania)--to name just a few. The list of podcast dates goes back to March 7, 2013--I think it would be really interesting to track down those early guests and see what they are up to now, 8 years later! However I listened to the most recent broadcast, Anthony Atala.
Dr Atala's road to research was not straightforward. In fact I wrote down, correctly I hope, his words about his career choices over the years: Nothing I ever planned turned out the way I thought it would. He was not upset about that it seemed to me, in fact he sounded quite happy with his path, simply ruefully aware that life's surprises can be a great part of, well, life! He started out convinced that he would be a clinical physician, and amazingly enough he has continued to juggle the challenge of seeing patients while also doing research and becoming Director as well as co-founding a number of companies. He believes that, for him, seeing patients helps him stay connected to what needs to be done. When he was first asked if he wanted to try out a, new at the time in Boston, research track during his training, he said no! It took some convincing for him to see that his passion, to both ask the questions and answer them, was perfectly suited to research.
But even after he went the research route things did not necessarily go smoothly. He decided on his first project and it was full steam ahead as he only had a year for that part of his training. His first abstract he submitted about growing cells on a scaffold was rejected, and when he asked why, he was told it was rejected because "it was not possible". Yet after 9 years he implanted the first bladder tissue into a patient.
Wake Forest University entered the picture because they also had a plan, and they wanted Dr. Atala to head up the new Institute for Regenerative Medicine they were in the process of forming in 2004. It was pioneering work, and again, after some convincing (most notably by his wife, who had, ironically enough, also convinced him that a research track was a good thing to try), he made the move along with about 20 people from the lab. He wanted to be part of creating an "inflection point" in Regenerative Medicine--and certainly that did happen!
He has also made quite a difference with his companies although he has for the most part, spun out his technologies but not gotten involved after that. The one exception is PreciseBio, which started when a 3D printing company wanted bio expertise and came to Dr. Atala for help. Yet Anthony realized that even with everything he was doing, there was a missing link--manufacturing. Innovation was humming along but when it came time to actually manufacture the new products, companies were going overseas to find the expertise and capacity. And so he is ALSO part of programs to develop biomanufacturing capacity and workforce in North Carolina. He said that one of the main reasons biotech is growing successfully in North Carolina is because the local, state and federal governments are all working together with the local schools and business to make it happen. I am sure that is true, but based on this podcast I would say that Dr Atala is a big part of that success as well!