Dr Constantine Stratakis, Scientific Director at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) and Society for Endocrinology Dale Medal winner, shares insights into his career and fascinating research on the genetics of pituitary tumours, ahead of his lecture at SfE BES 2019.
Could you tell us about your current position and your research?
I am the Scientific Director of NICHD, one of the 27 Institutes and Centres that form the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States. I am privileged to have been the scientific leader there for the last 10 years. As an investigator, I have been running my own laboratory at NICHD, NIH for over 25 years now. My laboratory focuses on identifying the genes or other genetic defects underlying the development of endocrine tumours. We started with the study of pituitary and adrenal tumours associated with endocrine neoplasia syndromes, but gradually expanded to other lesions and cancers, both inherited and sporadic.
Please tell us a little about your career path so far and what you’re most proud of?
I’ve been at the NIH now since 1993. However, I have been in endocrinology research since 1985 and am originally from Greece. Between medical school and my post-doctoral years, I spent some time in Paris, France where many of my collaborators are from. Over the years, I have been very fortunate to have built a great network of friends, mentors and collaborators, globally.
I’m indeed grateful to my many extraordinary collaborators from all over the world who have been so loyal and good to me – some for over 35 years! I would not have achieved what I have without them.
What more specifically will you be presenting in your Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2019?
In my lecture, I will talk about the genetics of pituitary tumours and how studying rare syndromes, such as Carney complex, Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia types 1 and 4 (MEN 1 and MEN 4), X-linked acrogigantism (X-LAG), and others, have uncovered important clues on what leads to the formation of both hereditary and sporadic pituitary tumours. I will outline some of our most important published work about the genetics of pituitary tumours and will also present some recent and unpublished data that shed light on new genes and pathways that may predispose a patient to pituitary tumours.
Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to at the conference and would recommend to others?
The SfE BES conference’s convenient size offers more opportunities to see a lot more than you would at larger conferences. I’m looking forward to attending lectures that bridge basic and clinical science, meeting trainees that may be interested in working in my laboratory in the US, consult with collaborators in the UK and elsewhere, and of course, meeting with my old friends and colleagues.
I like the ‘Meet the expert’ sessions and am planning to go to the session ‘Update on DSD genetics’, the symposium ‘New insights into PCOS’, and the oral communications session ‘Neuroendocrinology, pituitary and neoplasia’.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in your research area at the moment?
I think the biggest challenge right now is the handling of large datasets. With today’s tremendous technology, we have the ability to produce massive amounts of data, but the ability to analyse this data is lagging behind. For endocrine trainees and researchers alike, the challenge is receiving proper training in bioinformatics, so that we don’t have to rely on people who may not be trained in the molecular physiology of endocrine tumours. We need to bring bioinformatics to the point where you can analyse these large datasets by combining old knowledge with new knowledge.
What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?
I think artificial intelligence is not that far away and will allow us to incorporate the various “-omics” data into one important piece of information that will be immediately translatable to discoveries. Analysing data from both cell line work with clinical information from patients with tumours will really help with the discovery process.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The biggest joy of doing this type of work is analysing the mysterious, being excited by the discoveries, and coming up with the next questions. Yes, answers are important, but it is the questions and curiosity that excites me more than the answers themselves. I love Einstein’s quote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed”. And to this day, I have at my office hanging over my desk the poster that Dr J. Aidan Carney gave me (when we started working together back in 1994), with Albert Szent-Gyorgyi’ s saying: “Discovery consists of seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought”.
Is there anyone you admire most professionally or otherwise?
I consider myself very fortunate to have met and learned from Dr J. Aidan Carney from the Mayo Clinic and admire him for his extraordinary acumen, commitment to academia, and dedication to discovery. He discovered three different diseases, including Carney’s complex, the foundation of my career in genetics. There is now a disease that bears our names: Carney-Stratakis syndrome. Dr Carney taught me what I now enjoy most about my work – the pleasure that comes from discovering something new and exciting within what was previously unknown or ignored, as Albert Szent-Gyorgi said.
Beyond Dr Carney, I have been very fortunate to have met and been inspired by giants in medical genetics like Drs Robert J. Gorlin and Francis Collins. I also had mentors in my early career that were amazing to me, including Prof Menelaos Batrinos, Dr Spiros Pitoulis, Prof Jean-Pierre Luton, Dr Owen M. Rennert, Prof George P. Chrousos, and Dr Carolyn Bondy. It is their teachings and leading by example that guide me today.
Do you have any words of wisdom to aspiring endocrinologists?
My advice would be to follow your heart and do what you want to do. Don’t be dissuaded by what others say, about the lack of funding or the lack of opportunities. As Nelson Mandela said, “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. Surround yourself with great mentors, friends, collaborators, and eventually, yes, trainees; be nice to all of them because they will be there for you for the rest of your life. And remember that the travel is yours, only yours: success is a travel for which there is no other path than the path you make, very much like what Antonio Machado said: “traveller, there is no path. A path is made by walking (caminante, no hay camino se hace camino al andar).”
You can hear Dr. Stratakis’ plenary Medal Lecture, “From Carney complex to gigantism and Cushing disease: an insight in the genetics of pituitary tumors” on Monday 11 November at 18:10. Find out more about the scientific programme for SfE BES 2019.