‘I work in a field of unknown. It’s intriguing because there are no cures’

This classically trained pianist studied with the masters from The Julliard School before her budding interest in medicine led her to some of the greatest labs in pulmonary research. Today, Marilyn K. Glassberg, M.D., professor of medicine, surgery, and pediatrics, Director of the Interstitial and Rare Lung Disease Program and Director of the Pulmonary Division at the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, is an internationally known pulmonologist and rare disease expert. Investigating hard-to-treat lung disease, she says, proved far easier and more enjoyable than performing concertos for competitions.

“Choosing one’s career is about doing what you enjoy doing,” says the Miami native and long-time ‘Cane, whose education and career at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine span more than 30 years. Investigating rare diseases, she says, gave her work as a physician more purpose.

“I work in a field of unknown. It’s intriguing because there are no cures. And the answers are far from known,” said Glassberg. “Patients die untimely deaths so there’s a real need to try and understand the disease and develop treatments.”

In investigating lung disease, Glassberg said one of the aims is to get the lung to repair itself. Her eyes gleam with excitement as she talks about the promise of stem cells.

Here, she chats with Medical Communications and reveals her latest research, discusses her long-time affinity for orchids and antique Asian furniture, and how putting her family first was key to her career success.

Tell us a little about your background.

I was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital and grew up in Miami. I was an only child. My dad was a cardiologist at UM before he went into private practice, and my mom was an abstract artist and nurse. I attended Everglades School for Girls which became Ransom-Everglades School in my senior year, and from there I went to Wellesley College. I had a lot of great mentors all along, including Helen Padycula, who taught me histology and biochemistry in college. I trained with Andrew Webb who was studying immune mechanisms and is a current collaborator. Then I ended up working in Judah Folkman’s lab because Bob Trelstad, who was then Chair of the Department of Pathology at Shriners Burns Hospital at Massachusetts General Hospital, encouraged me to continue in the area of wound healing and connected me with the right people. These were all amazing places to train.

However, after college, I was deciding whether I wanted to be a Ph.D. or an M.D., but I chose medical school because my dad said, ‘If you become a Ph.D., you’ll starve because you will never have anything to fall back on. But if you like taking care of people and studying people problems then you should go to medical school.’ I enrolled at UM where in my first month of school, I met my husband, then a third-year medical student. I graduated in ‘85, finished my residency in ’88, trained in pulmonary until ’92 and joined UM’s faculty that same year.

What attracted you to pulmonary medicine?

The research I had done during college involved cells that were derived from the lung so my curiosity was there. As a resident, I wanted to pursue pulmonary medicine with a research focus. I worked with renowned scientist Una Ryan who was at UM at the time as head of Vascular Biology. She had discovered angiotensin converting enzyme on cells in the lung so that provided continuity in pulmonary research. In her lab, I worked on growth factors and their targets in the lung. Upon joining UM’s faculty, I had American Lung Association funding and was awarded a K08 grant from the NIH. Later, I branched out into rare lung diseases that involved some of these growth factors and that’s where I am today.

What do you find most interesting about your field?

In working in rare diseases it’s exciting to learn about the natural history of the disease. I also think that rare diseases provide insight into more common diseases. For example, a lot of the mechanisms that are singled out in rare diseases are actually seen more in common diseases so the information transfers over. That’s been seen a lot in oncology and, for instance, in the rare disease Fanconi’s anemia there was a gene that overlapped in breast cancer that turned out to be important in both.

Is there more purpose in investigating something that’s unknown and potentially making a discovery?

Yes, it definitely gives me more purpose. It allows me to help people in a special way.

Tell me about your work with stem cells.

Stem cells could really be a turning point in lung research. I’d been testing different drugs for about 14 years to treat patients with IPF (idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis) and I started working with stem cells about three years ago. In our efforts to find a cure, we’re looking at ways to try and get the lung to fix itself. That’s basically what led me to explore this modality. The lung doesn’t seem to know how to repair itself. It may have some potential to repair, but we just haven’t unleashed it. Although two drugs have recently been approved for the treatment of IPF, they do not cure the disease and only slow the disease process. The average lifespan is worse than breast cancer and hovers around four years from the time of diagnosis. So it’s worth forging ahead with cell-based therapy. In November of 2014 we completed enrollment for the first in man safety trial using mesenchymal stem cells delivered intravenously to patients with IPF. We’ll be following the nine participants for about 60 weeks.

What would you consider as some of the highlights of your career and life?

Gaining recognition in my area of interest showed that hard work really does pay off. Winning the National Academy of Medicine award in 2003 was an early career high point. Other career highlights included getting the call that an IND (Investigational New Drug) would be issued so that the stem cell trial could be conducted. This was exciting because something new could be offered for my patients. Meeting Lester Smith from the Lester and Sue Smith Foundation via the internet, who provided all the funding for the stem cell trial, is the most recent high point. Our meeting was serendipitous and he has ideas that have stimulated other related research.

Having all of my children — there are four of them, Daniel, Lauren, Isabelle, and Robert — and a wonderful husband, Marc, is certainly rewarding. My family is important to me and supersedes anything that I do. It’s often hard to balance family with such a demanding career, but I always actively make the decision to put my family first, and that’s why my career has gone the way it has gone. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my kids for my own success, so I have very happy children, with whom I’m very close. Throughout my career and life, there have been so many small victories and daily “aha” moments that are just as gratifying as the big glamorous moments.

What are your thoughts when you see patients?

The patients I see feel happy and relieved that they’ve gotten in to see me but I also feel lucky to see them and to know what I know. I’ve always said that research institutions have to be the centers of expertise because patients won’t find our services elsewhere. I see patients with rare diseases, such as IPF, that community-based doctors may want assistance with managing.

How have you dealt with obstacles?

A lot of it is determination. I’ve gotten a lot of support, but not always easily. I had to be very headstrong and fight to get through difficult projects. People would say, ‘No, it can’t be done that way,’ and I would say, ‘Yes, it can.’ And I would do my best to make it work. So you make a decision to move forward and that diminishes the obstacle or hurdle — and when the next obstacle arises you have to figure out how high to jump.

What are some of your hobbies?

I grow orchids. I love to cook, especially Asian and Paleo cooking. For many years, my husband and I have collected antique Asian furniture. I also play the piano and enjoy accompanying my daughter, Isabelle, a concert violinist. Maybe four hand piano music and chamber would be fun to play as well.

What advice would you give to medical students and residents?

Do what you love. You have to really enjoy what you do. Don’t pursue a field just because someone is telling you that it’ll provide a certain lifestyle. If it is a field that truly interests you, you’ll go to work every day wanting to do your work and be happy.

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