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Irina Petrache: Science, Compassion, and Patient Care

December 2012
Irina Petrache, MD

Irina Petrace, MD Photo
courtesy of Indiana
University School of

As Irina Petrache, MD, makes her rounds as a physician in the medical ICU at the Indiana University Health and in the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, she comes face to face with the manifestations of the very diseases she’s spent years researching.

The patients she runs into time and again are smokers or ex-smokers who suffer from COPD. “They give me a very practical perspective on who the recipients of my research are going to be and what are the important questions that need to be asked,” Dr. Petrache says.

A native of Romania, Dr. Petrache, 44, is the Dr. Calvin H. English Professor of Medicine, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and vice chair of research of the Department of Medicine at the Indiana University in Indianapolis. She’s also the ATS International Conference Committee chair-appointee.

Her lab investigates mechanisms of lung injury pertinent to cigarette smoke-induced chronic lung disease, and in particular the role of lung parenchymal cell apoptosis in the development of emphysema.

Though she considers herself a clinician at the core, she’s always had a nagging curiosity about the logic behind diseases—their manifestation, development, and treatment. These questions led her to seek out research opportunities as a resident at what is now Saint Vincent’s Medical Center, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and eventually to a pulmonary and critical care fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

“In Irina, we recognized immediately her brilliant mind, and her ability to synthesize concepts and bridge different disciplines,” says Robert A. Wise, MD, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins. “Irina prospered under the scientific direction of Drs. Augustine Choi and Rubin Tuder, two of the most creative scientists in pulmonary medicine.”

With Dr. Choi’s help, Dr. Petrache formulated her first research question: how oxidative stress induces cell death. She then became fascinated by the role of cell death, in particular apoptosis (or programmed cell death), in the development of lung diseases. Under the mentorship of Johns Hopkins professor Joe G. N. “Skip” Garcia, MD, she looked at the interconnections between apoptosis and vulnerability of the endothelial cells that line lung vasculature.

Following her fellowship, she continued on as junior faculty and applied the knowledge of mechanisms of apoptosis in understanding the pathogenesis of emphysema with Dr. Tuder, which launched the beginning of her independent career in pulmonary research.

Since then, she’s progressed COPD research and has been examining how structural elements of the lung become destroyed by cigarette-smoke and mechanisms by which the lung could be repaired.

“I’m hoping to identify and test potential treatment targets in preclinical models, so that we can quickly bring these discoveries to the bedside,” Dr. Petrache says.

Through a partnership between the ATS and Alpha-1 Foundation, she was chosen as one of the 2004 ATS Foundation Research Grant recipients for her investigation “Ceramide Upregulation: An Amplifying Mechanism of Lung Apoptosis and Emphysema Development.”

At IU, Dr. Petrache mentors one to two undergraduates and two post doctoral fellows every year. Under Dr. Petrache, former mentee Mary Beth Brown, PT, ATC, PhD, studied the microvascular inflammatory responses to ceramide and cigarette smoke in the intact rat assessed with intravital two-photon microscopy (a technological feat that Dr. Petrache and her colleagues were among the first to develop).

“Irina is the type of person you want to be around,” says Dr. Brown, now an assistant professor of Physical Therapy at IU. “At conferences, she’s usually swarmed. In addition to having wisdom, she’s just a nice person. That’s an unusual find in a high-caliber researcher.”

To Dr. Petrache, a great mentor is one who gives constructive criticism and is also a cheerleader. “Mentees face a lot of peer-review related rejection in terms of papers and grant applications, and they have doubts related to their career development,” Dr. Petrache says. “It’s the mentor’s role to train them for being competitive, but also to be there for moral support and encouragement.”

She also applies this approach when visiting patients in the MICU. “I believe, as a practicing physician, that if there is no cure for a disease, you can still make patients feel better by caring for them compassionately,” Dr. Petrache says. “And by educating them about the disease, you can give them more control over their future, more hope.”

Secret to Success: Skiing

Before she went to medical school, Dr. Petrache competed in the Romanian national ski team and consistently placed in the top three during national competitions. Her athletic past, she says, honed her focus and time-management and organizational skills. These days she stays healthy with her family—husband and physicist Horia Petrache, PhD, a son in high school, and a daughter in fifth grade—by running in 5Ks and half-marathons and squeezing in ski runs where she can. She recently finished her first triathlon last year.

The key to keeping it all together is finding the right work-life balance. “I had to give up some of my perfectionist traits and allow myself to compromise at certain times,” Dr. Petrache says. “It has required me to prioritize very well. I cannot balance in one day to be good at everything. But in certain days, I prioritize work. In other days I prioritize family. And then there are the few but important days to prioritize personal needs, such as finding time to run with my friends, bike to work, or read a book.”


Photo courtesy of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Last Reviewed: September 2017