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Dr. Stratakis: Returning to Greece After a Distinguished U.S. Career

Dr. Constantine Stratakis is a physician-scientist specializing in endocrinology and genetics. His remarkable career includes research in medicine, identifying new diseases and genes, and developing new treatments. For more than twenty-five years, Dr. Stratakis has operated an NIH-funded laboratory studying endocrine disorders. He is now moving to Greece to start a new Research Institute on Personalized Medicine while maintaining his Emeritus Scientist at the NIH.

Dr. Constantine Stratakis is now returning to Greece after a 35-year distinguished career to found a new Research Institute in Athens. His laboratory will be at the famous FORTH in Crete (www.forth.gr), following in the footsteps of his revered uncle.

The National Herald: Tell us about your background.

Dr. Constantine Stratakis: I trained in Athens, Greece and (for a short but very formative time) in Paris, France, before joining in 1989 the Developmental Endocrinology Branch (DEB) of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, MD, where I worked on the genetics of human glucocorticoid resistance.

At Georgetown University, Washington DC, I completed a Pediatrics residency and two fellowships in Pediatric Endocrinology and Medical Genetics (1990-1996).

At NICHD, I served as Chief of the Heritable Disorders Branch (HDB) and then Head of the most extensive Clinical Research program of NICHD that combined DEB, HDB, and other sections (2003-2011), as well as Director of the NIH Pediatric Endocrinology Fellowship Program (2002-2014).

Then I became the Scientific Director of NICHD, one of the oldest and largest NIH Institutes (2009-2020).

I am committed to increasing the scientific workforce's diversity: more than 2/3 of my trainees were leading female scientists, and I worked hard to support LGBTQ+ research at the NIH.

I now serve the NIH Children’s Inn, and I have been widely involved in the Hellenic community of Washington DC and in matters that concern the Greek diaspora.

In 2016 I was named Distinguished Physician of the Year by the Hellenic Medical Society of New York (HMSNY) during the HMSNY’s 80th scholarship celebration.

TNH: As a teenager, you were determined to be a biochemist or a biologist. What drove you to endocrinology?

Dr. Stratakis: As far as I remember, I always wanted to be a scientist: my first microscope, at the age of 10 or so, was used to look at bugs and beer yeast.

In 1987, in the last year of medical school, I received a stipend to spend a summer at the hospital Cochin, Paris, France. In 1988, after I returned to Greece from France, I received a Fulbright scholarship award to spend time at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Dr. G. Chrousos’ laboratory, at the historic Developmental Endocrinology Branch (DEB) of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD). George became my mentor, later my best man at my wedding, and to this day remains a close friend.

I participated in identifying the first human mutations of the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) causing cortisol resistance, a disease that had been studied by George and his mentor – yet another mythical name in Endocrinology and NIH: CRC Director Dr. Mortimer B. Lipsett.

I followed medical rounds at the NIH Clinical Center and I was so lucky to be exposed to many more beautiful clinician-scientists and outstanding teachers (Drs. Lynn Loriaux, Roy Hertz, Gordon Cutler, and others). As much as I liked Paris and despite a job offer by Prof. Luton, I fell in love with NIH.

I owe my introduction to genetics to Dr. Owen Rennert, a pediatrician, a geneticist, and Chairman of Pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital (GUH) at the time. Dr. Rennert has been my mentor, ‘father’, and friend since.

When Dr. Francis Collins, then newly appointed Director of the National Center for Human Genomics Research (which today is the National Human Genome Research Institute or NHGRI), came to GUH for one of our weekly grand rounds, I was convinced to become a geneticist. His talk (as always) was so inspiring that, in the end, I was confident that with proper training, I would be able to find the genetic causes of the endocrine tumors I was interested in.

I talked briefly to Dr. Collins after rounds, and that was it. By 1996, I was board-certified in Pediatrics, Pediatric Endocrinology, and Medical Genetics.

I accepted the offer by Dr. Arthur Levine to start a small laboratory at the NIH (Unit on Genetics & Endocrinology) co-mentored by Dr. Chrousos and Dr. Carolyn Bondy, a wonderful clinician-scientist who had just begun her now seminal work on Turner syndrome.

With Chrousos’ unique insights into human physiology, Bondys’ help setting up my laboratory, and Rennert’s continuing advice from Georgetown, I was set and amazingly lucky: just the right people and combination of talents to learn from!    

TNH: Tell us about your laboratory-produced groundbreaking accomplishments in the study of endocrine disorders.

Dr. Stratakis: I have worked on genetic defects involved in predisposition to adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s disease), pituitary and adrenal tumors, gigantism and acromegaly, Cushing syndrome, Carney complex, and others, and described new entities, such as X-LAG (X-linked acrogigantism), 3-PAs (the 3 Ps association of paragangliomas pheochromocytomas and pituitary adenomas), and isolated micronodular adrenocortical disease (iMAD). I found the genes for the Carney complex and gigantism and many other diseases. Our laboratory has more than 800 publications.

TNH: Tell us about your laboratory’s alumni community.

Dr. Stratakis: I have trained more than 200 students, residents, pre-doctoral, post-doctoral, and clinical fellows and have nurtured the careers of several faculty members and investigators.

Like anyone in academics, I owe a lot to my trainees: I have had the fortune of having, over the years, beautiful people that have worked with me. All continue to be friends or collaborators, and I enjoy tremendously seeing them with their families at meetings and other functions, thriving now as independent researchers themselves.  

It is my way of paying back the huge debt I owe to the many people that helped, encouraged, and taught me: to give to my graduate and medical students, fellows, and all others that I work with, all I can give: my time, advice, guidance, and opportunities.

I take particular pride in my many Greek and Greek-American and other Greeks from the diaspora who trained at my lab and have gone on to remarkable careers.

TNH: What is ARISTEiA, and what are its aims and objectives?

Dr. Stratakis: ARISTEiA aspires to create infrastructures, teams, and networks necessary to advance academic excellence in education and research. We do that by being engaged with others, organizations, and individuals in promoting education, scientific research, and discovery in Greece and elsewhere, providing a forum for the presentation and discussion of scientific problems, publishing and disseminating the results of research via journals, newsletters, books, and brochures and by organizing or participating in conferences symposia, workshops, and courses. Our final goal is to create a new entity, an academic institution in Greece, that will support these aims.

TNH: What made you return to Greece, and what exactly are you working on there?

Dr. Stratakis: I always wanted to go back to Greece and do something meaningful there. As I hit middle age and sensed that what I accomplished, what I came to the United States for, I was itching for the right opportunity to go to Greece.

There is a buzz around now in Greece; it is just the right time to be there. After ten years of crisis and a tremendous brain drain, the conditions are ripe for the return of many and the right types of investments. I was given an enormous task to build a new Research Institute, the first private such facility in Greece. I am delighted about the opportunity and super excited!

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