Meet the winner of the 2019 Society for Endocrinology European Medal

Prof Felix Beuschlein is head of the Department of Endocrinology, Diabetology and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Zurich and winner of the Society for Endocrinology European Medal. He has carried out ground-breaking work in adrenal research for many years, now with a focus on endocrine tumours and hormonally-induced hypertension. In our interview, Prof Beuschlein tells us more about his research, career and his prize lecture at SfE BES 2019.

Could you tell us about your current position and your research?

I’m the head of the Department of Endocrinology, Diabetology and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Zurich clinic in Switzerland. I have been in the field of adrenal research since the start of my career, and my research has two broad directions. The first is on endocrine hypertension and everything to do with endocrine cardiovascular research, and the other is on endocrine tumours. 

Can you tell us a little more about your career path and what you are most proud of?

I specialised in adrenal research for my doctoral thesis, then moved several times within Germany and to the U.S. during my medical career, before moving to Switzerland. As you can imagine, moving so often was not always appreciated by my family and it can make friendships more difficult. However, you also get to engage with many different people from your field, sharing new ideas and opportunities all the time. So I view these moves as an enrichment of my career, rather than a challenge.

I am most proud of the very good and broad network of people, from all the different places I have worked and beyond. I have many colleagues in Europe and all over the globe, who I can rely on and trust, which has led to many interesting collaborations. I am also proud to be a co-founder of the European Network for the Study of Adrenal Tumours.

What will you be presenting at your SfE BES 2019 Medal Lecture?

My lecture will tell the story of how tiny little deviations that start off in the genome of a single cell can lead to a myriad of changes in the human body. There are very specific genetic changes that we, and others have identified, that predispose for adrenal tumours by causing small modifications in biological pathways. For example, hypercortisolism or excessive secretion of aldosterone, causes many changes in target organs, which then affect metabolism and lead to metabolic changes that define the phenotype witnessed by medical doctors.

Is there anything that you are particularly looking forward to at the conference?

Usually when I go to meetings like this I don’t prepare too much and like to just see what’s happening – maybe by chance I will find a brilliant talk, which I might have otherwise missed. In general, I like intersecting fields that are not immediately apparent to be endocrine-related but encourage us to think outside the box, opening our field to new ideas and new thinking.

What do you think have been the biggest challenges so far in your research area?

Right now one of the biggest problems is the maintenance of good registries and biobanks for clinical research. It is a major challenge to find funding to build and maintain them, to keep them going for a long period of time, so that you can build a cohort of patients with very rare diseases, and then follow up on them. Another challenge is keeping up awareness of particular topics, be it from the patient perspective, or that research is necessary. Then of course there is the challenge of Brexit and nations drifting apart and not knowing how that will turn out.

What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?

I would say pattern recognition and artificial intelligence. As an endocrinologist this would mean not measuring one hormone, but rather looking for patterns of different hormones. ‘Omics technologies make it possible not only to measure one particular analyte, but a whole bunch. This means we can generate large datasets, over longer periods of time. Not a human being, nor an endocrinologist, nor a doctor are able to digest this information by themselves but computerised analysis of this data can indicate if disease is present or not. I think these possibilities will not only change science but also how we diagnose patients. Although this may be seen as frightening from some doctors’ perspectives, I think it will happen in the near future. We are already able to generate so much more data, but making sense out of it is the real challenge.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

My work in general is very varied, from seeing patients every day, to doing administrative things, to doing research. I also enjoy engaging with my network of scientists, talking and discussing with bright minds all over the globe. This is particularly rewarding, very interesting and is probably among the best things about research. Regardless of nationality, religious beliefs or any other differences, you come together and find common ground for discussion.

Who do you admire most professionally and why?

I have had a number of colleagues over the years who I see as role models but there are two that stand out most Martin Reincke has been a colleague and friend for over many decades and has followed my career very closely. The other important person is Bruno Allolio who was my mentor and teacher early in my career. He unfortunately passed away far too early but I remember him in many aspects of my scientific and medical career.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists?

When I think back to what I have enjoyed the most and what I am most proud of in my career, I think it’s important for young endocrinologists to get connected with colleagues and other researchers. These networks are the fertile ground for all your future projects and career path. Endocrinology is a close community, so it is likely you will meet the same people again, which is also a great starting point for new friendships. It is also important professionally to have these networks to help you start multi-disciplinary or multi-centric projects.

You can hear Prof Beuschlein’s plenary Medal Lecture, “Mechanisms and consequences of endocrine autonomy – lessons learned from the adrenal cortex” on Tuesday 12 November at 18:20. Find out more about the scientific programme for SfE BES 2019.

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