An accidental laboratory observation during an ongoing cancer research project on mice led acclaimed Greek geneticist Dr. Constantine Stratakis to a breakthrough discovery on weight management, which could help people battle obesity more easily in the future.
The discovery, which made international headlines following its publication, sheds light on key brain mechanisms related to healthy lifestyle behaviors.
In an exclusive interview with Greek Reporter, the head of the Department of Genetics and Endocrinology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Washington, D.C., stresses that scientists should always keep an open mind for accidental findings like this.
As he shares his excitement about both his medical discovery and Greek life, Dr. Stratakis also reveals his thoughts about moving back to Greece sometime soon – and with the purpose to contribute as a working professional.
Understanding weight management habits essential to obesity discovery
Dr. Stratakis’ research team had been studying tumor development in a lab-created mouse with a specific genetic defect, when they made a surprising observation.
“These mice live in cages all the time, and so they gain weight. What was striking about this particular mouse was that not only wasn’t it getting the tumors that we were expecting it to get, but also it was maintaining a relatively normal weight compared to the mice that didn’t have that genetic defect”, the geneticist notes.
After studying its phenotype further, the research team realized that the difference was not so much in the quantities of food that the mouse was eating, but in what types of things it chose to eat.
Not only did the mouse avoid sugary diets — unlike other mice — but also, if the researchers put a wheel into its cage, the mouse would willingly jump on the wheel and run in it without stopping, and without any sort of incentive.
The scientists also found no evidence of stress in the mouse that could explain this behavior.
“We found out that these two behaviors, avoiding bad food and exercising willingly, are controlled by the same cells in the same part of the brain. And we also happen to know now, because this mouse had this genetic defect, the chemistry of what regulates these two behaviors,” Stratakis explains.
“It’s amazing; I always thought that what we eat and whether we exercise are two different behaviors, but apparently they can be linked. I am not saying that they are linked all the time, but, at least in that setting, they are.
“And we know the molecules that are involved, and so in theory we can modify this behavior in humans, and maybe one day we can have a sort of a treatment for that. That’s it!” he exclaims.
Rollout in humans
The fact that this same part of the brain that controls the above-described behaviors, which are key in weight management, is also involved in the regulation of addictive behaviors, as well as in depression, anxiety, and some other essential functions of the human body that are controlled by the brain — has stirred even more enthusiasm in the scientific community.
“So, many of us now know that food preference as well as exercise, are both, or can have, an addictive component,” Stratakis notes.
“And so, one of the things that we are trying to explore is how addiction to certain foods and addiction to exercise are connected, and how these two addictive, or potentially addictive behaviors — which are good behaviors — connect to other addictive behaviors,” he points out.
Nonetheless, the researcher believes that we are probably a decade away from applying this knowledge to the public.
Just as he has previously indicated to journalists — although somewhat jokingly, he admits — a nasal spray could be an easy way to target and affect the center in question in the brain someday.
However, this might not be the only way to make these findings work on humans.
Although now scientists now know which parts of the brain controls these behaviors, and which molecules are involved, what they don’t know is how the mechanism actually works.
“It’s a very painstaking process to try to identify all the elements of these two behaviors and how the cells in the brain, the neurons, control these behaviors, which are executed by other parts of the body.
“So we have to find out the exact connections,” Stratakis emphasizes.
“In the meantime, we will be working with the molecular signaling, with the chemistry.
“And it is very possible that we will find something that modifies that behavior from outside that doesn’t require full knowledge of how these behaviors are connected – at least not before it goes to humans.
“Maybe we can come up with something that is already approved for another indication and, at the time, before it’s used in humans for this purpose, we will be sure,” he adds, on a more optimistic note.
Key rules for researchers on obesity discovery
At the end of the day, the accidental discovery reaffirms the key set of principles that Stratakis has long been teaching to his students — to never throw away data, and to keep an open mind in anything that they research.
“It is what many people say, accidents in a lab lead to great discoveries; as long as one, you never throw away data, and two, you are prepared to record these attributes,” he notes.
“Oftentimes, I say to my students ‘have an open mind.’ I think the beauty of the laboratory is that you can observe and, as long as you observe, don’t throw away any data, because you don’t know where it is going to lead to.
“All those big discoveries in medicine, in science, have been made accidentally — but it’s not exactly an accident, in the sense that people who are making these observations, follow these two rules. That’s very important,” Stratakis concludes.
A future in Greece
Originally a graduate of the University of Athens, with two doctorates from the same university — the second one awarded as honorary — Stratakis has been based in the Washington, DC area since 1999.
In what he calls “a great environment with great opportunities”, the Greek doctor went on to become a geneticist, did his residency in pediatrics, genetics and endocrinology at Georgetown University, and was eventually recruited by the NIH.
“But I have been in the US for too long, and, in fact I am entertaining the possibility of returning to Greece now that my children are off to college, so we are empty-nesters, I and my wife.
“Both of us want to do it now that we still can work in Greece and benefit the country with the knowledge we have gained in our own fields. My wife is a doctor as well, an opthalmologist, and so we can both work,” Stratakis adds.
He is looking forward to joining his circle of friends and former students — now colleagues — in Athens; after all, one third to one quarter of his students over the years have been from Greece.
“A lot of Greeks in the USA say they want to go back, but they don’t necessarily want to do what we want to do, which is to work in Greece. They say, ‘I’ll go back as a retiree.’ I don’t want to do that. So I am working at opportunities.
“It’s a great time to invest in Greece, as long as you love that country, and of course you have to be prepared — it’s not the United States, there’s no question about that.
“But there’s a give and take in everything you do, so if somebody can do it, I think this is the right time to do it”, Stratakis says with a smile.