Meet Greet Van den Berghe the Society’s 2021 European Medal winner

Professor Greet Van den Berghe is the head of the clinical department and laboratory of Intensive Care Medicine at KU Leuven University and its University Hospitals in Belgium. The Leuven Clinical Intensive Care department is a large, tertiary referral centre treating over 3,100 patients per year. She is also Professor of Medicine at KU Leuven and actively researches the endocrinology and metabolism of critical illness. Here she tells about her career, research and how important it is to break boundaries and challenge classical ideas in the pursuit of better patient care.

Tell us a little about your career path
After obtaining my medical degree, I trained in anesthesiology and intensive care, then in biostatistics and later completed a PhD in endocrinology. I followed this path so that I could work at the boundaries of several disciplines, which provided an excellent opportunity to build a multidisciplinary research team and to expand on translational research in endocrinology and metabolism of critical illness, from bed to bench and back.

What inspired you into research?
When I was a junior attending physician in the intensive care unit (ICU), I observed that long-stay ICU patients, both children and adults, quickly began to look much older than their chronological age. At the same time they showed endocrine and metabolic abnormalities that mimicked certain characteristic of ‘ageing’. I hypothesised that maybe this ‘accelerated ageing’ phenotype of ICU patients could in part be iatrogenic, and if so, may be preventable. These thoughts formed the basis for my PhD research, in which I demonstrated that dopamine infusion, a drug commonly used at the time for haemodynamic and renal support, was causing an iatrogenic suppression of the anterior pituitary with harmful consequences. Based on these findings the practice of infusing dopamine in the ICU was abandoned.

“Together we have made exciting discoveries and we were able to repeatedly close the loop from an original idea triggered by patient care, to basic research in the lab and back to randomised-controlled trials in patients.”

In my postdoctoral research, we went a step further and identified biphasic neuroendocrine and metabolic responses to acute and prolonged critical illness in both patients and animal models. This research clarified many earlier, apparent paradoxes and provided the basis for our later work that focused on the acute and long-term harmful impact of hyperglycemia, the early use of parenteral nutrition and the pathophysiology of the HPA axis response to the stress of critical illness.

What are you proudest of in your career, so far?
In 2002, I inherited a very large and well organised clinical intensive care department to chair, upon which I have built research from bed to bench and back again. There was no research in the department when I started, so I had to build everything from scratch. Over the years, this growing symbiosis, between high-level patient care and research, has proved to be very successful. This also allowed me to recruit the best clinicians and scientists who now work effectively together as a very close team.

“I enjoy thinking outside the box, creating new ideas by crossing boundaries between classical disciplines”

Together we have made exciting discoveries and we were able to repeatedly close the loop from an original idea triggered by patient care, to basic research in the lab and back to randomized-controlled trials in patients. That is such great fun! So, I am most proud of my team, and grateful to them for making me happy every day!

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy thinking outside the box, creating new ideas by crossing boundaries between classical disciplines, and working with young, enthusiastic physicians and scientists, to generate new knowledge that forms a solid basis for better patient care.

What will you be presenting in your lecture at SfE BES 2021?
In my talk, entitled “Re-thinking critical illness induced corticosteroid insufficiency”, I will present novel insights from our recent research on HPA axis changes that occur in response to acute and prolonged critical illness. I will challenge the classical paradigm of stress-induced increased ACTH-driven cortisol production as the basis for increased systemic cortisol availability in severely ill patients. I will also challenge the idea that a short ACTH stimulation test can diagnose failure of this stress response.

To say it with a metaphor: “What you see is not always what you get”.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists?
Look further than the boundaries of your own discipline, there is much to be learnt and innovated when you go beyond them!

You can attend Professor Van den Berghe’s Medal Lecture, Re-thinking critical illness induced corticosteroid insufficiency on Tuesday 9 November at 18:45.

Find out more about the scientific programme for SfE BES 2021.

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