Building the science dream team

Building the science dream team

He possesses the drive and energy that are typical of people with purpose and vision. And yet there is also the warmth, optimism and kindness that develops in those who had to face many challenges and put a huge effort into seeing their dreams come true. We met with Theoharis Theoharides, professor of pharmacology and internal medicine at the Department of Immunology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, on the occasion of his collaboration with Deree – The American College of Greece in Athens, where he serves part-time as director of Health Science Programs and Research.

He has personally seen to the solid organization of the college’s new Biomedical Sciences program, which will welcome its first students in the new academic year, and his excitement is palpable from the first moments of our conversation: “This is a very significant effort for the ACG, for Greece and for science in general,” he points out.

His philosophy centers around providing students with the necessary academic background in order to continue their studies at universities around the world and fill key positions at big hospitals and research centers. Fourth-year studies are akin to medical school. Similar modules are taught by distinguished faculty, organized placements are offered in some of the most prestigious hospitals and pharmaceutical companies in Athens, and the preparation of a thesis is required.

Contacts have already been made in order to enable graduates of the program to enroll in the third year at medical schools across Europe and benefit from priority admission to medical schools in the USA.

“In Greece, they will be able to contribute valuable know-how to public organizations or hospitals, for example as to how clinical studies are conducted, which is quite an underdeveloped field in Greece, featuring a low take-up of funds for clinical research.”

Maybe, somewhere in the back of his mind, Dr Theoharides wishes to spare these aspiring young students the hardships he had to endure in the pursuit of science.

Selling ice blocks

He was born in the Harilaou district of Thessaloniki in 1950. Those were difficult times, as his mother suffered from asthma and his father was an unemployed agronomist. Raising three children was an immense struggle. To make a living, the family opened a small taverna next to their house and there, as a boy, Theoharis used to serve the customers. In an added attempt to help the family, he would buy blocks of ice from a local factory, load them onto a cart and sell them on the streets.

When it was time for him to go to high school, he managed to get a scholarship for Anatolia College. His family longed for him to study medicine, just like his father’s late brother, who had died young and whom Theoharis was named after. “Father always thought that studying was very important. ‘Your degree will be like a bracelet around your wrist,’” he recalls fondly. Just before graduating from Anatolia, he heard of Yale and decided to apply to Medical School. He asked the college’s vice president to allow him to apply to the prestigious university. He said no, as none of his students had ever studied there before.

Theoharides was crushed but somehow found the nerve to write to Yale, requesting that they send him an application. They asked him to write back and explain why he wanted to study there, to which he replied with a summary of the pre-Hippocratic history of medicine, which they found interesting. They sent a letter to the college, saying that they wished for him to be allowed to apply, which he was. There was no question of his being accepted but there was the question of his travel fare, which he could not afford. His teachers raised the money and bought him a one-way ticket on an ocean liner.

Going to America

He left with 28 dollars in his pocket and three suitcases containing all his possessions, secured by a thick chain and lock given to him by his father to keep them from being stolen. He also carried a small typewriter, which was a gift from his father, and a two-volume Greek-English and English-Greek dictionary, given to him by his mother – both of which he still treasures. For 17 days, 1,200 people sailed on the Queen Anna Maria ocean liner. His bunk bed was on the fourth deck, deep in the bowels of the ship. He managed to convince the captain to allow him to play the guitar on the first deck, along with the band, and thus gained access to decent food.

Upon arriving in New York, he had to spend 11 of his 28 dollars in order to pay for the bus fare to New Haven, which was where the Yale campus was. “When I came off the bus, it was pouring down and the campus was nowhere to be seen. I had to decide whether to take a taxi and part with what was left of my money or save it and walk in the rain. In the end I lifted my three suitcases and walked about 10 blocks until I reached the halls of residence, which were completely empty, the beds didn’t even have mattresses on them, because I had arrived two weeks early in order to familiarize myself with the place. I remember feeling desperate.”

He soon realized that, rather than being admitted into Yale Medical School, he had been accepted by the college, which was a four-year course he had to graduate from before applying to any other school. He took comfort in the thought of the countless opportunities open to him for learning and experiencing everything Yale had to offer. He was on a scholarship; however, this entailed that he had to work at one of the college’s 12 dining halls. He also worked in one of the labs of the Biology Department, feeding lizards used in experiments.

Experiencing Yale

“While at university, I was like a sponge. It had so much to offer that it seemed stupid to attend just the modules required for medicine. I sat through many other useful lectures and my first degree was in biology and the history of medicine.” His PhD was in pharmacology and the subject of his thesis revolved around mast cells. “A mast cell is like a football filled with around 500 ping-pong balls. Each ping-pong ball contains over 50 round bullets which are released, one of them being histamine, which is what triggers allergies.”

The objective of his research is to control the mast cells’ behavior. This way, they could be made to exude substances which could combat specific diseases or stopped from releasing substances causing diseases. “If we could select the mast cells’ behavior, we would do away with most diseases,” he says. Mast cells contribute to the pathogenesis of allergies, as well as autism, fibromyalgia, mastocytosis and chronic fatigue syndrome, all of which could be reversed by the herbal substance called luteolin. Theoharides left Yale with a degree in biology and medicine (having won the Winternitz Prize for the best work in Pathology), two master’s and a PhD. He further specialized in internal medicine at the New England Medical Center in Boston.

In Greece, Dr Theoharides has participated in the Committee to Upgrade the National Healthcare System, served as a member of the board of directors of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Technology (IFET) of the National Organization of Medicines (EOF), and as member of the Supreme Scientific Advisory Health Council at the Health Ministry. He is the author of 425 publications and three books, has trained over 180 students and holds 27 American and international patents for the treatment of various diseases. He is a member of the Medical Associations of Thessaloniki and Cyprus, as well as the Massachusetts Medical Society and 20 other international scientific associations. He has received more than 20 awards and distinctions.

He firmly believes that “in order to fight against serious diseases, we need a ‘dream team’ of scientists doing research together, in order to attract greater funding. The new program offered at Deree aims at training students to do more than just memorize data, but rather learn how to think, work collectively and develop leadership skills, while maintaining an unpretentious profile. After all, to quote Aristotle, ‘Science without virtue is mischief.’”

This article first appeared in “K,” Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.

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