Curing SCID: The People Behind the Process

Jolanta "Jola" Dowdy, a native of Poland, grew up behind the Iron Curtain.

Jolanta "Jola" Dowdy, a native of Poland, grew up behind the Iron Curtain.

Jolanta "Jola" Dowdy 

Hematology

In a famous scene in the 1963 film The Great Escape, the late actor Steve McQueen jumps his Triumph T6 Trophy motorcycle over a barbed-wire fence. The film tells the true story of Allied prisoners of war attempting to escape from Stalag Luft III, a camp near Żagań, Poland.

“Always, if people ask me where I am from, nobody will know the name Żagań,” said Jolanta “Jola” Dowdy, a senior coordinator of clinical research operations in Hematology. “But I ask,” ‘Have you seen the movie “The Great Escape” with Steve McQueen?’”

Dowdy was born in the historic town of Żagań, located 50 miles from the German border. She recalled how the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 shaped her values.

“You don’t need much to be happy,” Dowdy said.

Economic hardship was commonplace in Poland before 1989, she explained, so Poles prized simple possessions: one doll, a chocolate bar. “I always treated these things like treasure,” she said.

Other barriers to communication with the outside world fell with the wall. Dowdy first saw a computer when she was 15. She didn’t know that email, the original Internet app, would someday change her life.

For years, Dowdy practiced English with a tutor and close friend in Poland. Then, one day Dowdy wondered aloud about an additional learning strategy: “I could exchange emails with someone who is native in English.”

Her friend, who now lived in Atlanta, shared Dowdy’s email address with a man she knew well. He emailed Dowdy, the first message in a correspondence that lasted four years. 

Finally, Dowdy visited him in Memphis, taking her first trip to the U.S. She recounted a shopping trip to the mall when this man, southern hospitality in full bloom, greeted and chatted with clerks in all the stores. Exiting the mall, Dowdy said, “Wow! You know many people here.”

Cultural differences, like propensity for small talk, did not hinder this budding romance. “He’s intelligent and has great sense of humor,” said Dowdy, describing the qualities that drew her to this American man—Michael Dowdy—who didn’t yet speak Polish. That Christmas, he visited Poland and proposed; the couple married in Memphis a year later.

Jola Dowdy moved to Memphis 13 years ago. In Poland, she had taught biology and chemistry to middle and high school students. “When I was moving here,” she recalled, “I knew that I probably wouldn’t be a teacher, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Dowdy, who describes St. Jude as “absolutely amazing,” quickly found work as a St. Jude volunteer. Then she applied for a job in Epidemiology and Cancer Control where she worked for three years. She’s worked in Hematology for the last seven years.

Dowdy manages the clinical trial investigating the use of gene therapy for a rare genetic disorder called X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID-X1). She is charged with daily operations, including regulatory compliance, project timelines and patient enrollment.

Published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, the study marked a milestone in the fight against life-threatening pediatric diseases: a cure for infants born with SCID-X1. Now, Dowdy is diligently working on the licensing effort to bring this product to market.

“The goal is to have this treatment for all the children in the world,” she said.

Although Dowdy grew up behind the Iron Curtain, she managed to enter the world stage nearly 5,000 miles from her native land and make a significant contribution to the welfare of children.

As a child, she played in the forests near Żagań, where Allied POWs once dug tunnels in an ill-fated attempt to obtain freedom. “I love going back to Poland,” Dowdy said. She likes to go with her husband in the fall, when the mild temperatures and rainy conditions spark the growth of wild mushrooms, pulling tourists and townspeople into the woods to gather this staple of Polish dishes. 

“You can see a lot of people in the forests,” Dowdy said. “They are just walking around, picking up the wild mushrooms.”

A few of Dowdy’s favorite things

  • Hiking in Shelby Farms, the Smokies and other national parks
  • Cooking healthy foods (“You know, we Polish people love our food. We love to cook and share with others, and that’s a big part of our hospitality.”)
  • Preparing pierogies (a flavorful Polish dish) once a year at Christmastime to freeze or to invite friends to try (Dowdy usually makes about 200 potato and cheese or sauerkraut and mushroom dumplings.)

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