It was November 17 when Greek scientist Dr Evangelia “Litsa” Kranias heard her name being announced over the microphone at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia, followed by loud, heartfelt applause from the audience – and what an audience, filled with the people whose judgment every scientist values most, peers who know what working on the cutting edge of science is all about.
Dr Kranias, professor and director of cardiovascular biology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, the scientist behind some of the most important discoveries in the cellular mechanisms of the heart and how certain proteins can cause arrhythmias, was awarded the American Heart Association (AHA) Basic Research Prize, the most important award given by the respected association.
“These awards are incredibly important to a researcher,” the distinguished Greek scientist told Kathimerini recently. “They are a recognition of your contribution to your scientific field and specific developments for new approaches to treating various diseases. In our case, these are heart failure and arrhythmia. The goal for us all is to wake up to a better tomorrow.”
One of Kranias’ earliest discoveries was that a small protein called phospholamban is crucial to modulating cardiac contractility, a discovery that went on to lead to important treatments for heart failure.
“We have also identified mutations of phospholamban that can act as diagnostic or prognostic indicators of heart disease, which will allow us in the future to develop ‘customized’ medicines,” says Kranias.
Kranias is the biggest female Greek name in the field of heart disease research today. There was a time, though, when she was an 18-year-old leaving the northern port city of Thessaloniki for the United States armed with little but a Fulbright scholarship. It was 1966.
“I am still surprised by the courage and determination of that 18-year-old girl,” she admits today. “I missed my family a lot and that trip to the US came as a culture shock. But I was determined to succeed and I gradually started to feel at home. Of course I still miss my family, the food, the sun and the beaches of Halkidiki.”
Kranias studied biology and biochemistry at the University of Chicago and received her PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry from Northwestern in 1974. She joined the University of Cincinnati faculty in 1978, at a time when the research community involved with the heart and heart disease was (and still tends to be) male-dominated.
“I don’t think that being a woman was an obstacle to my career. I was fortunate, in fact, to have a great deal of support from my male colleagues. The only exception was during the early years when, as a young scientist, I felt quite alone, especially at scientific conventions. It was a male-dominated kingdom and they were not so happy to include a female scientist among their ranks,” she says. That, she adds, is changing as an increasing number of women assume leading positions in the field.
Kranias’ recent distinction was also an important feather in the cap of the Greek scientific community, with which she has kept in close contact throughout her career. She was part of the core team invited 15 years ago by Gregory Skalkeas to set up the Biomedical Research Foundation (BRFAA) of the Academy of Athens, Greece’s top institution in this field.
“It was a huge blessing having my research team from the University of Cincinnati and the team from Athens working so closely together and complementing each other,” she says.
She has also worked closely with the team of respected cardiothoracic surgeon Dimitris Kremastinos and mainly with Dr Anna Kolokathi. It was actually in Greece that she made the phospholamban discovery.
“Greek scientists are well-qualified, innovative and very dedicated to their field. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of support in terms of funding that would help them develop their ideas and their projects. Nevertheless, their scientific contributions are of the highest caliber and they are often published in the biggest scientific journals of their fields,” says Kranias.
Does all the science take away some of the heart’s magic? “There’s a lot we still don’t know about the cellular mechanisms and the paths related to heart failure and arrhythmia... The heart is more than just an organ. It’s the main source of life and death for the mind and the body.”