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Christos Proukakis: UK-Greek Academic Neurologist on Front Line of War on Parkinson’s

Christos is an academic neurologist at University College London in the UK, where he has spent most of his adult life.

He grew up in Greece but trained in Britain, studying at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. He also spent two months of his studies at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. This period was crucial in his future development as a researcher. It provided him with the first experience of PCR – a genetic lab technique which was very new then and is ubiquitous now, providing many weapons in the war against diseases, including COVID-19. He currently divides his time between looking after patients with Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions and research and teaching as an Associate Professor.

He is also investigating the genetic causes of Parkinson’s and his work has been generously funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation in New York.

On December 15 he was vaccinated, being among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The National Herald: You just had the vaccine for the Coronavirus. What made you qualify so early? Where you fearful?

Christos Proukakis: Although I may look relatively young and healthy, I had some major health problems in the past. I ended up being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, which has left a vulnerability. Furthermore, I am no spring chicken, having recently turned 50, so I wanted to make sure I got protected as quickly as circumstances allowed. I am incredibly grateful to Pfizer and BioNTech and the marvelous British Institution of the National Health Service, which allowed me to access it so soon. I was full of enthusiasm for it and relief after having it. ‘Fear’ did not even register – the only fear was my life being at risk if I got COVID.

TNH: Should we have any concerns about mRNA technology?

CP: I am not a virologist or vaccine developer, but I know enough to understand the background of mRNA vaccines, which is an ingenious way to stimulate the immune system in a very focused manner. Only a tiny part of the viral mRNA is used. There is no DNA intermediate at any stage, so any concerns about changing the human genome, which has been circulated in some social media, appear entirely unfounded.

TNH: How can the vaccine been developed and approved so quickly? What side effects does it have?

CP: BioNTech, Moderna, and others have been working on mRNA vaccines for years – long before COVID-19. They, therefore, had the technology practically ready to apply to this unprecedented challenge. The trials have been conducted to the strictest standards, and the very cautious regulatory bodies in the UK, USA, and elsewhere have given explicit favorable opinions.

Furthermore, the Pfizer/BioNTech trial data were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the leading medical journal in the world.

The trial data showed no related significant adverse events. There have been a few hundred thousand vaccinations in the UK so far, with a couple of allergic reactions reported in the media, but nothing else.

All I had was a little bit of soreness around the injection site the next day – that was it. I have spoken to several colleagues who also had the vaccine and also had essentially no side effects. I, therefore, see no reason for any concern.

TNH: How has the pandemic affected your work? Your patients?

CP: My lab was essentially closed for several months, which was the same for pretty much every scientist I know, so we are all playing catch-up, still. We had to adapt to interminable zoom and team meetings, and while I am grateful for having these technologies, I will not miss having to rely less on them. The hospital reduced ‘face to face’ appointments to the bare minimum, and because of my vulnerability, I had to conduct all my clinics by telephone for several months.

I think my patients were grateful that we could at least do this under the circumstances, and I am thankful to them for their patience. I hope we don’t have to go back to this, although some consultations can be safely done over the phone, with video added if needed, which will save patients a journey going forward.

TNH: Having had the vaccine, how will it change your life in the upcoming year?

CP: I guess it’s a cliché to say we can go back to normal, but I don’t know what ‘normal’ is anymore! I will hopefully eventually be able to do all the things I miss, from restaurants and hugs to in-person lab meetings and traveling.

TNH: How will the vaccine profit your patients?

CP: Save their lives! I have a lot of elderly disabled patients who have been mostly stuck at home since the spring. I was delighted to hear last week that a few of the over-80 ones already have had it or had dates given to them by their family doctors.

TNH: How persistently do you work to succeed in what you do?

CP: I don’t think you can succeed in any endeavor without persistence. I recall the excellent head of the lab at Johns Hopkins, where I was a visiting student, who gave me a very positive report in all respects but said that she could not tell if I had the persistence to persevere despite the numerous obstacles in a scientific career. I am pleased to have answered this in the affirmative!

TNH: Is it a ‘bridge too far’ to expect a drastic and lasting change in people’s mentality after the pandemic is over?

CP: You might have to ask an anthropologist or psychologist! We have seen how what we take for granted can be so easily removed. Hopefully, this will give us some sense of humility and an added incentive to enjoy all the simple, joyful moments that often pass unnoticed.

TNH: Do you look forward to traveling again?

CP: Absolutely! Certainly to Greece to see my mother, sister, and childhood friends – it pains me not to spend Christmas there. I am particularly looking forward to crossing the Atlantic again, which I have been doing 2-3 times per year before COVID-19. I even miss jet lag! Seeing existing and potential collaborators in the flesh again are vastly superior to any Zoom meeting. I can’t wait to bring my son, who will shortly turn eight, to the USA. I had been dreaming of a family trip to California in the past fall. My first hop across the pond will, of course, be to New York. In my last visit, I had incredibly productive meetings at the MJ Fox Foundation, reviewing the results of my previous grant, and Mount Sinai, followed by a quick round of the Guggenheim before my flight. We have a lot of unfinished business to tend to.

TNH: Which are the wisest words you were taught and from whom?

CP: I honestly don’t think I could answer this, even if I spent weeks thinking about it. “Don’t give up” is probably the closest I would get, and this has been consistent advice from family, friends, and teachers at numerous stages of my life, whether facing professional or health challenges.

TNH: What have you retained from everything you have learned from your family and your father being a doctor?

CP: I think the most important thing I learned was to have a curious spirit. Logic, perseverance, and a sense of fairness have also guided me from a young age. Being a researcher and a practicing physician, as my late father was, gives me the best of both worlds.

TNH: Can brilliance stem from error? Are mistakes the locus of ingenuity?

CP: Not sure about the error, but from being bold and taking chances – for sure. I was warned that my research focus was too risky and ‘left-field’. It has, however, borne fruit and might help transform our understanding of how neurodegeneration arises or progresses, so I am delighted that I persisted in my chosen path. Mistakes are common in the lab, and I like saying that I don’t mind an experiment going wrong, as long as we can work out why it went wrong!

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