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The Greek Doctor Behind the New Alzheimer’s Drug

Biogen Chairman Papadopoulos alzheimer's
The Greek Doctor Behind the New Alzheimer’s Drug, Stelios Papadopoulos. Credit: Screenshot Youtube / Hellenic dna

Dr. Stelios Papadopoulos, the chairman at Biogen, is now offering hope for millions suffering from Alzheimer’s disease with a new drug.

The FDA has recently approved two new drugs shown to slow down the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

The first of these is Lecanameb—otherwise known as Leqembi—and the second is Aduhelm. The two were created in conjunction by the companies Eisai in Japan and Biogen in the U.S. This means that each is able to stall, if not impede, the evolution of Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages.

Biogen, founded in 1978, a pioneer in the field of neuroscience, has been developing therapies for multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The American multinational biotechnology company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, specializes in the discovery, development, and delivery of therapies for the treatment of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, to patients worldwide.

Alzheimer’s drug gets FDA approval

The company’s most recent contribution to therapy for Alzheimer’s, a devastating neurological disease, is scientifically known as aducanumab and pharmaceutically as Aduhelm. Biogen ostensibly does what previously approved drug therapies for Alzheimer’s could not—slow or stop the memory-robbing progression of the disease.

Although Biogen has existed for more than four decades, Papadopoulos’ association with the company has been for little less than twenty years.

At 73, the Biogen chairman, who lives in Great Neck, New York, has been branded the “father of biogenetics” by CNN and Bloomberg.

Sitting at the helm of a company valued at almost fifteen billion dollars, he holds degrees in math, physics, and business.

At eighteen, Papadopoulos was both a soccer enthusiast and a student of electrical engineering at Athens Technical University, Metsovio. In 1966, he had no notion of improving the lives of patients with Alzheimer’s through a drug his company would produce.

Papadopoulos explains that “Greeks are a migratory people. Because of this, we are missing a connection to our heritage, to our language, as we find our way in the world. Initiatives that bind Greeks with their heritage are superb.”

Papadopoulos was a boy who loved soccer from the time he was probably three years of age. He even slept with his soccer ball. He recently recounted his journey from Thessaloniki’s Harilaou neighborhood to offering millions of Alzheimer’s patients hope in a YouTube interview with Hellenic DNA.

According to Papadopoulos, it was his career in investment banking that led to his association with Biogen and developing treatment for Alzheimer’s. And that career got its start at what he terms “the legendary 5th Lykeio of Thessaloniki.”

Papadopoulos’ father had come to Thessaloniki from Pontus in 1924. His mother, whose family also was from Pontus, was born in Thessaloniki. They married in 1948, and Papadopoulos was born the same year.

The family grew with a second son, but Papadopoulos tragically lost his father in an accident while he was still in school.

Papadopoulos attends legendary 5th Lykeio of Thessaloniki

Papadopoulos said, “I went to the historic 5th Lykeio of Thessaloniki. You needed to pass the exams to be admitted and all of the really good students graduated from that school. The combination of good teachers and good students continuously improved the performance and achievements of its students and graduates.”

He said it was known as the “Legendary 5th” because it had an outstanding reputation in academics, sports, and arts. Troubadour Dionysis Savopoulos and athlete Yiannis Ioannidis studied there.

“The school was a 30 minute walk from my home and the freshmen classes were six,” he said. “We met in the basement of the building. There were rats as big as cats that made a lot of noise.”

Although he was nervous at first to attend the school, he eventually found his way and added that he made lifelong friends there. Today, fifty-four years post-graduation, he often makes a phone call or sends an email to inform the group of friends he will be back in Greece in the summer or winter, and thirty to forty of his former classmates then reunite.

Papadopoulos recalled, “At three, I fell in love with soccer. I even used to go to sleep with ball in my bed. There was a stadium just across the street from our home and next to the church Osios Xeni.” He added that he played on soccer teams as a young man. The biggest challengers were the Roma team played from Kato Toumba.

“While in high school I liked all the lessons, particularly Greek language, literature, poetry, ancient Greek, math and physics,” he said. “If I could go backwards in time I probably would have chosen a professional course in Greek literature. But that would not have given me financial security. I loved physics.”

At the time, student applications for collegiate studies were reviewed by the principal. “I took my choice to the principal for his approval,” he recalled. “Instead he insisted I follow electrical engineering. And that is what I did. He told me if I was ‘still interested in physics, five years from now, [to] do [my] post-graduate studies in physics.'”

In 1966, the eventual Biogen chairman was admitted to the electrical engineering program at Metsovio, the National Technical University in Athens, with no connection to wonder drugs that would stop Alzheimer’s.

“My entire family came with me to Athens—my widowed mother, my younger brother and my grandmother,” he said. “We rented a house in Ambelokipi and I began my studies.”

“That same fall, I received a letter from the US,” he revealed. :It was from a scholarship organization I had applied to, telling me if I was still interested, to send along certain documents. I submitted all the documents—letters of recommendation, school records etc.”

The approval came. He left Athens and his family on New Year’s Eve by train for Paris, where they had distant relatives.

“My mother made a huge sacrifice for me,” he admitted. “When I chose to go to the States, to continue my education, she never once said ‘how can you leave me—you are my eldest son, I am a widow and your younger brother is an orphan?’ In the mid 60s it would be normal for most women of that time to rely on the oldest son.”

Papadopoulos recounted that his mother told him, “If you want to go to America, son, that is where your future is and that is where you should go.” Today his mother is ninety-two and thriving.

“We have good DNA and it looks like we will not be afflicted with Alzheimer’s,” he notes. He added that he still has aunts and uncles who are over eighty years old.

Papadopoulos heads to US in 1967

“On January 4, 1967 I landed in New York,” he revealed. “The organization sent me to a small American college to obtain my bachelor’s degree. The thinking behind this was to more easily immerse the foreign students in the academic culture and American society.”

He completed a double major in math and physics and continued post graduate studies at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and then New York University. Eventually, he distanced himself from the academic world. During the Vietnam War, many of the programs in math and physics were being bankrolled by the Department of Defense.

“I didn’t want to throw away all my accumulated knowledge of physics, but for political reasons I could not stay,” he said. “So I came up with a solution—biophysics.”

Stock analyst helps to create Alzheimer’s drug

“I went from New York University to Washington Square, into the Physics department at NYU Medical School,” he said. “I conducted research in structural biology and earned my PhD in Biophysics Structural Biology.”

He had no hint then how a drug for treating Alzheimer’s would affect his professional life. “I remained in academics for a few years in the department of cell biology at New York University Medical Center.”

Papadopoulos states, “I met my wife while we were both in school. I was doing my post-graduate studies and she was in medical school.”

Papadopoulos and his wife have three children, two daughters, aged 36 and 35, one of whom is based in Connecticut and works as a clinical psychologist. His other daughter is an entrepreneur in Madrid. His 26 year-old son is based in New York.

Papadopoulos said he had his “lightbulb moment” and envisioned what would come next.

“I began in the business school of New York University in 1981,” he said. “My mornings were spent instructing courses in biology. My nights were spent as a student of business and finance.” He completed his degree in business in 1984 and became a stock analyst.

He began his career specializing in investment banking for biotechnology, but, as a consultant, he said he felt intellectually dishonest, as he was offering advice but not taking any personal risk.

“I decided I had to try for myself,” he maintained. “So I invested personal capital in my ideas or the ideas of colleagues based on where I saw the future of biotech heading and I would found companies.”

Papadopoulos joins Biogen to fight against Alzheimer’s

Beginning in 1991, Papadopoulos became both an investment banker and a founder of companies, but a drug for Alzheimer’s was long off. He said that one of the most important companies founded that still exists today “is the company I founded with Spyros Atavanis, a professor at Yale and then Harvard, ‘Exelixis.'” The company makes one billion dollars in annual profits, specializing in drugs for cancer treatment.

In 2006, he stopped working as an investment banker and approached Biogen. By 2008, he was elected as a member of their board of directors. In 2014, he was elected chairman of the board of directors and remains in that position today. Biogen’s work was in neurological disease with initial innovations for multiple sclerosis with a thirty percent market share of available pharmaceuticals.

According to Papadopoulos, the Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm’s development dates back to a small Swiss pharmaceutical company, Neurimmune. It was created by “Carlson Henkel, the founder and good friend…with the [aim] of finding lucid seniors in their 80s and 90s [during which] they have the ability to systematically and persistently keep their brain free of plaque” to combat Alzheimer’s.

“The typical way to achieve this is through the use [of] antibodies and the study found…several antibodies in seniors,” said Papadopoulos of treatment for Alzheimer’s using drugs.

Biogen bought the rights to one of those antibodies in 2007. The Alzheimer’s drug targets the biological mechanism of the disease itself rather than just the symptoms. Papadopoulos hopes this will open the road for more extensive studies that will give the world an effective drug.

“Of the 200,000 in Greece who suffer from Alzheimer’s, only about 30 to 50 will be able to use the drug,” he states. The drug doesn’t stop or reverse Alzheimer’s, according to Papadopoulos, and it is only effective in the early stages.

“It means that people will have quality of life gains,” he explained in discussing the potential of the new Alzheimer’s drug. “It is the difference between forgetting your keys or forgetting how to eat.”

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