A Path of Scientific Inquiry Leads to St. Petersburg
Timing can be everything. For Vera Ignjatovic, Ph.D., a pathway of decisions and events that began in her early teens and a passion for scientific discovery led her to the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Research, which she joined in August 2022 as assistant director for translational research. She will also serve as a professor of pediatrics (PAR) in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The journey began at age 13 when her family moved from her native Serbia to Australia, just a few years before war would spread through much of the Balkan region. She immediately entered high school, and though she spoke no English, within a month she was able to help classmates with homework. She was 16 at graduation.
Science and technology were a family calling. Her father was an electronic engineer, her mother a mechanical designer, and her younger brother became an accomplished aerospace engineer.
Ignjatovic entered Monash University in Melbourne thinking she would major in microbiology, but biochemistry lectures soon captured her interest and set her on a new path. She would earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry, with an eye toward a career in the pharmaceutical industry.
Another well-timed opportunity occurred while Ignjatovic was in the last year of her Ph.D. studies.
“There was a lot of celebration when the Olympic Committee announced that Sydney would host the summer games in 2000,” she explains. “As the host country, Australia would be given additional opportunities for its athletes and teams. A friend knew I had started playing handball at the age of 12 and encouraged me to try out for the national team. I wound up training with the team while completing my Ph.D. — and having this great opportunity to take part in the Olympics.”
“Though we lost every game, when we lost by just 10 goals to Norway, it was considered quite a feat, because they were among the world’s best. The Norwegian team ended up getting the bronze medal.”
She didn’t leave with a medal, but the experience brought many rewards, including a new path forward. As she considered her next step, she noticed a small advertisement in a local newspaper for a job as a post-doctoral fellow with a new hematology laboratory at the University of Melbourne and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
“They were looking for someone to set up the laboratory from scratch. I hadn’t done that before, and I had limited experience with hematology,” she recalls. “But the fact that I was able to take part in Olympic training and competition while completing my Ph.D. made them confident that I could get the laboratory up and running while getting up to speed in hematology at the same time.”
Ignjatovic kept a framed copy of the advertisement in her home in Australia for many years, and this reminder of her start in the world of hematology now has a place of honor in her Florida home.
Over the course of two decades, Ignjatovic became co-leader of the laboratory and gained an international reputation for expertise in developmental hematology — the study of the evolution of the blood system from fetal life through old age — and proteomics, the in-depth study and analysis of the proteins in blood, other bodily fluids and tissues in order to better understand their roles in health and disease.
“With proteomics we can look at many hundreds of proteins at once from just a single drop of blood. We are now collecting blood from a finger, and enabling patients to sample their own blood in the comfort of their home. The samples are stored in the biorepository, which allows us to use portions of the same sample for subsequent tests, as we seek to answer new questions.”
Her research has had three main areas of focus.
Disease processes, with a focus on hematology. In her first 10 years at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Ignjatovic focused on thrombosis and hemostasis — the essential interactions that control normal, excessive or insufficient blood clotting — and developmental hemostasis, which is the study of the maturation of the blood clotting system from infancy through adulthood.
“These systems change with age and directly influence how the anticoagulant medications used to prevent blood clots act in children. The process is very different and more complex in children than in adults.”
Defining laboratory reference ranges specifically for children. Ignjatovic was the scientific leader of the “Harmonising Age Pathology Parameters in Kids” (HAPPI Kids) project, which collected and analyzed blood samples from children of all ages — beginning in an infant’s first 24 hours of life — to establish and confirm normal values for hematology, immunology and biochemistry. This work, funded by the Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation in Melbourne, has been an invaluable guide for pediatric health professionals as they review and interpret clinical laboratory tests.
She recalls a personal example of the need for these parameters. When a friend’s son had bloodwork done after some soccer injuries, a local physician was concerned that certain results suggested that the teenager had a bleeding disorder. These are chilling words for any parent to hear. The friend shared the information with Ignjatovic, who put the results in the context of the age-appropriate reference values with guidance from a pediatric hematologist and quickly dispelled this concern.
Applying the science of proteomics to many areas of pediatric specialty care. Ignjatovic sees great potential for proteomics to answer questions that can inform clinical care and improve outcomes, particularly when proteomics data are combined with detailed clinical information and other data that maximize the ability to develop prognostic and predictive models. This concept of “biomarker-enhanced clinical predictive models” is a shared interest and career-long pursuit of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Associate Dean for Research Neil Goldenberg, M.D., Ph.D., and both scientists have engaged virtually in collaborative research. The opportunity to work more closely with Goldenberg and colleagues in the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Research was one of the factors that drew her to Johns Hopkins All Children’s and the broader Johns Hopkins community.
Ignjatovic describes why proteomics is a useful way to explore questions such as: Which children being evaluated in an emergency center with signs of potential sepsis are most likely to need care in the ICU? Among children and teens who have a concussion, who will have a delayed recovery and need a comprehensive treatment protocol?
“Even when the underlying mechanism of a disease or specific outcome isn’t yet understood, proteomics can help find the answers,” she says. “We can ask: Does this protein help to better predict this outcome? Then we can work backward to understand the mechanism and use this knowledge to identify proteins that can be targeted in evaluating possible therapeutic approaches.”
The pediatric biorepository at Johns Hopkins All Children’s will play a key role in these studies, and already Ignjatovic is working closely with the biospecimen-banking team to plan collaborative studies. She notes the state-of-the-art biorepository has features and capabilities that will support innovative studies.
Ignjatovic holds a number of international leadership roles that highlight her scientific passions: in the Human Proteome Organization (HUPO), as chair of the Marketing and Outreach Committee, and as chair of the Plasma Coagulation Inhibitors Scientific Standardization Committee for the International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH).
“I am excited to contribute to the research vision at Johns Hopkins All Children’s through collaborative studies with basic scientists to accelerate interdisciplinary research collaborations; by mentoring clinicians interested in research and guiding them in answering questions of importance for their clinical populations; and by maximizing return on investment in biospecimen banking through scientific collaborations among researchers locally, with Baltimore-based faculty, and with industry partners,” she concludes. “All of these avenues are opportunities for further contributions to improvements in child health.”