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Brave new world leader

Believing in science, a professor of genetics is at the forefront of a branch of knowledge set to have far reaching consequences on the world as we know it. THEO PANAYIDES meets him

I’m 20 minutes late for the interview with Professor Constantinos Deltas. (Memo to the University of Cyprus: please open up some more parking spaces, I’m sure it’s not that hard, it’s all fields around there anyway.) This is potentially a problem, because his time is limited. He’s just back from a conference in Heidelberg and about to leave tomorrow for another, three-day conference in Preveza. When I finally arrive at his office in the Department of Biological Sciences he’s inside with a colleague, and motions for me to wait. When I finally go in, he’s on the phone, making arrangements for a nephrology conference he’s organising in Cyprus on March 28-29.

He’s always been a high achiever. His full CV, including all publications, presentations and conferences, runs to 50 pages. It also includes the information that in 1976, when Constantinos was 18 (he’s now 55), he “graduated first in the class (Standard Bearer), Archbishop Kyprianos High School, Strovolos” – an event commemorated by black-and-white photos on the wall of his office, showing a serious young man with a bowl haircut holding the school flag in one hand and raising his fist with the other. He actually graduated top of his class in all six years of high school. “I guess I made the mistake in 1st grade, as a very young boy, to be the first in the class, and then I thought I should always be first,” he recalls wryly. “I couldn’t accept to be the second.”

It’s heartening to know that we have our best and brightest doing what Constantinos does – because what he does may be the most important work on the planet. His area of specialisation is important enough, dealing with the medical genetics of “inherited renal diseases” (‘renal’ means having to do with the kidneys) and “deciphering the molecular and cellular mechanisms behind a disorder” – but his position as Professor of Genetics also places him, more broadly, in the branch of science that’s likely to have the most far-reaching consequences on the world as we know it.

It’s not just fanciful stuff, like human cloning. Professor Deltas isn’t about to start creating Frankenstein’s monsters – but, for instance, one of his biggest projects is the quest by the Molecular Medicine Research Centre at the University of Cyprus (which he heads) to create the island’s first biobank. This will be “a big repository of medical histories and biological material of patients with genetic disorders,” he explains – in other words, a database of useful info aiding the treatment and prevention of inherited diseases. We can now screen people and see their disorders reflected in their genes; more importantly, we can see their predisposition to many disorders reflected in their genes. We can see “genetic biomarkers”, DNA changes and mutations that suggest a healthy person’s future risk of developing diabetes, or hypertension, or thrombophilia, or cancer, or dementia.

The implications are obvious. Constantinos’ team only take samples from volunteers who sign consent forms – but why not take samples from everyone, the whole population? Could there be routine screening in the future, maybe in childhood? “Oh yeah,” he replies. “Oh yeah, we’re getting there.” Right now, “there aren’t that many markers verified that it would be worth screening everybody”; you can still do it – he’s happy to offer advice to readers who want to be screened – but diabetes, for instance, still doesn’t have generally accepted biomarkers which can be routinely tested. “This is going to happen soon, though. Things are changing, and they’re changing quickly. In the next few years, we will see many genetic biomarkers that you can detect by general testing”. By the time his own three kids are middle-aged (the eldest is now 29), every child might come with his or her genetic roadmap, identifying inherited mutations and possible trouble spots.

Constantinos in his school days
Constantinos in his school days

A brave new world, indeed – but it comes with ethical challenges. Last December, for instance, scientists discovered a gene called DCC (inevitably dubbed the ‘teen gene’) which, if altered, can greatly increase the risk of developing mental illness in adolescence. Some psychiatrists have already called for teenagers to be screened as a matter of course, so those at risk can be identified early. There’s a huge public interest in protecting vulnerable teens, or at least keeping an eye on them – but what happens to those teenagers years later, when they try to get a job and their employer sees that they once tested positive for a risk of mental illness?

“OK, fair enough,” says Constantinos when I put the question. “We have to deal with this somehow. But this is the science”. Obviously, he adds, all genetic information would be kept confidential, and not made available to insurance companies or prospective employers.

Obviously. But records can be hacked.

“OK, we have to find ways to get around that. And the solution is not to stop testing and research.”

So, as a scientist, he’s focused purely on the science?

“No, we focus on everything. We are deeply concerned about the ethics issues. But we have to find a way to deal with it.”

His tone remains amiable, but I notice that his arms are tightly folded. A tinge of defensiveness is probably inevitable when we talk about these things – if only because he spends so much time doing them. He seems very busy, I note politely. “I am. But every person in my position is very busy, believe me. If someone is determined to get things done – and get things done right, not just adequately – you have to spend the time, nothing comes easy.”

How many hours does he work?

“Average week, 50-60 hours. This is in contrast to what many people believe about academics and university professors,” he adds with a hint of dry humour. It’s not just a question of teaching hours, it’s also “administration, research – above all, research – communicating with people around the world, communicating with journals, applying for grants. All of these you can never achieve working eight to five, or nine to five. So an average week – without any exaggeration – sometimes it’s 50, sometimes it climbs up to 60 hours. There is no weekend that I don’t spend at least five to eight hours working”. Even vacation time gets compromised; he spent most of last August organising the aforementioned conference – a major event in his field, approved by the European Renal Association and due to feature more than a dozen top foreign speakers.

So what does he do for fun?

“Fun?” A long pause, which speaks for itself. “For fun … Sometimes I try to find the time to read literature,” he offers – though he hasn’t even done that in the past couple of years. The last non-scientific book he recalls reading was Kypros Chrysostomides’ Anoikta Zitimata on the Cyprus problem (which isn’t everyone’s idea of fun). “Reading science is a constant job,” he admits ruefully.

That’s the way it is, when you want to do good work and your full CV runs to 50 pages. That’s how it’s always been for Constantinos Deltas – maybe because he doesn’t come from an academic background. His dad was a truck driver for Kyknos, an animal-feed company, and later started his own business; his mother worked odd jobs, “in factories, helping in houses, she did everything she could to raise us”. He married young – he and wife Vasiliki already had two kids when he went to America for his PhD – and devoted himself to work. “Sometimes people tell me ‘You’re a smart guy’. No, I’m not smart. I’m not smarter than anybody else. But I spend the time and effort to do what I’m supposed to do.”

All his life, he’s been forging his own path. There was “absolutely nothing” in Cyprus, in terms of genetic testing (only thalassemia, and even there the molecular test was done abroad), when Lefkos Middleton invited him to join the nascent Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics in 1991. He stayed for 11 years, then joined the University – where, again, the Department of Biological Sciences had just been created. Starting something new requires a relentless work ethic, nor does he seem the type to delegate; he’ll supervise lab work, fill in forms, do the accounts, write books and papers. He shows me his latest, The Genetic Heritage of Cypriots Through Special Topics of Genetics – a book related to another big project, sampling more than 600 people from all over the island to prepare “the Cypriot phylogenetic tree” and discover the relationship between Greek Cypriots and other populations (recent research, not by Constantinos, has uncovered some amusing data on this kind of “genetic admixture”, revealing for instance that almost 20 per cent of Hungarian DNA is comprised of Cypriot DNA). I take a quick look inside his book: there’s a reference to “Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium” and a complex mathematical equation. I close the book hastily, and look around the room while Constantinos is on the phone.

On the wall behind him there’s a motto: “Life is tough, you’ve got to be tougher. Research is good, you’ve got to be better” – a fitting summation for this driven, diligent man. Further down there’s a plaque for Eminent Scientist of the Year 2008, presented by an outfit called the International Research Promotion Council (how they found him, and why they chose him, remains a bit of a mystery). Finally, in the far corner, I note something quite surprising – an icon of the Virgin Mary, tying in with a nearby painting by Stelios Votsis (a personal gift from the artist) with a rather mystical inscription: “Let Light and Love and Power restore the Plan on Earth”. Doesn’t sound very scientific, I point out.

Constantinos smiles: “I’m not an atheist,” he replies simply. “It’s probably very difficult to explain what I believe and how I believe, but I’m not an atheist”. He pauses: “The other thing is that I believe in Science. I don’t know if you can call Science a goddess – but I believe in Science.”

It’s a fitting note on which to end, religion and science – intimations of the past and the future – wrapped up together in the little office amid talk of labs and publications and conferences. What will happen in the future? Will we all come branded at birth with our genetic biomarkers, our flaws and weaknesses laid out for all to see? Will medicine “interfere very early on,” as Constantinos puts it – or will there be something more sinister, those with weak genes demoted to ‘Epsilons’ like in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Will the rich pay for perfect genetic specimens? Will governments pry in the biobank to decide which families to encourage, and which to discourage?

Anything is possible; that’s the danger with the kind of work Constantinos Deltas is engaged in – yet that’s also its beauty. As I leave, he gets another phone call: a party of school kids from Linopetra Lyceum want to visit his lab and hear about the work he does – another project to add to his many projects, but he makes time anyway. “I could’ve said no, but why say no? We want to motivate young people and inform them.”

“Science is everywhere,” he asserts with feeling. “And knowing about it is our duty – at least, it’s the duty of some of us”. There’s a piece of advice he always gives his students, he says, and also used to give his kids: “Don’t let one single day go by without learning something new”. So much to learn, and never enough time.

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