Mirjam Christ-Crain - the Basel medical professor who received the prestigious Latsis Prize for 2009 in Bern on Thursday - knows a lot about the effects of stress.
The 35-year-old doctor won the prize for her outstanding work into hormones and stress hormones in pneumonia and strokes. As a mother of two, she is also a role model in terms of combining family with a successful research career.
Christ-Crain, from Basel University Hospital, received the SFr100,000 ($98,200) award, which is given to young researchers, at a special ceremony in the Swiss capital.
“It’s one of the highest research awards in Switzerland and I feel very honoured and of course, it’s not just only me who deserves it, it’s my whole research group. It’s a great motivation also for me and the team,” she told swissinfo.ch ahead of the ceremony.
The laudation for the young professor praises her outstanding work in the prognostic - and diagnostic - value for biomarkers in pneumonia and strokes, which addresses “highly relevant issues in patient care”.
Christ-Crain’s first studies looked into the diagnostic value of the hormone procalcitonin in pulmonary infections, such as pneumonia. These infections can be both bacterial and viral, but only bacterial ones need antibiotics.
As it not easy to differentiate between the two types of infection, antibiotics are often prescribed in both cases. “With this too high and unnecessary use you can increase the antibiotic resistance rate,” explained Christ-Crain.
As procalcitonin increases in value in bacterial infections but not in viral ones, the researcher could use the hormone as a marker. In five randomised trials of more than 2,500 patients only those with high procalcitonin levels in their blood received antibiotics.
“With this strategy we could decrease antibiotic use by 50 per cent and this may have a high impact on antibiotic resistance rates,” she said.
While working at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, Christ-Crain studied another biomarker, the stress hormone cortisol.
“Again I studied pneumonia and I observed that a patient who comes to the emergency department with a high level of cortisol has a much worse prognosis than a patient with a lower cortisol level.”
Back in Switzerland, Christ-Crain turned her attention to strokes, looking at the hormone copeptin which is produced directly in the brain.
“We observed again that those patients who came to the emergency department with a high stress hormone level had a high risk of dying or remaining disabled after three months or one year after a stroke. Patients with a lower copeptin level had a good chance of recovering within a few months,” she said.
The results of this study are published in the latest edition of the Annals of Neurology.
Christ-Crain’s findings could help doctors in their diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia and stroke patients.
“It’s a practical application of hormones. What makes hormones so fascinating for me, is that they are really everywhere in our body and everything that happens in our body influences hormone levels - they are like a mirror of every event in our body,” she explained.
This is why for the 2009 Latsis Prize winner, who is passionate about her research, endocrinology is so much more than just studying thyroid or adrenal disease.
Winning the award gives her motivation but is also a great responsibility, she says, as it is aimed at encouraging young researchers to continue producing good work. But the financial side also allows for further studies to be carried out.
A report released in Switzerland last December found that women held relatively few leadership positions in Swiss academia and scientific research compared with other countries in Europe.
In his speech during the Latsis ceremony, Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter alluded to the lack of equality in the Swiss research scene and praised Christ-Crain as leading the way for both men and women scientists.
Christ-Crain is conscious that as a mother of two small children – aged two and a half and one – and a successful researcher, she may be seen as a role model for other young women in the sector.
“Maybe it's a coincidence that I only have women in my research group but it's also because they see with me that it's possible to combine [the two],” she said.
That’s not to say that it is always easy, Christ-Crain says, as it sometimes necessitates a bit of a balancing act.
Overall a good researcher needs enthusiasm, and to love what he or she does, said the professor. They also need to be able to motivate a team and to convince patients to contribute to valuable medical research. There is also one other factor.
“You always need a good piece of luck,” said Christ-Crain.
Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch
The National Latsis Prize is one of Switzerland's most prestigious scientific awards. It is awarded annually on behalf of the Geneva-based Latsis Foundation by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The SFr100,000 ($98,200) award honours the outstanding scientific achievements of a research scientist under age 40 working in Switzerland.
The Latsis Foundation, a charitable organisation, was established in 1975 by the Greek Latsis family in Geneva.
The Foundation currently sponsors six awards: four university prizes, worth SFr25,000 each, the National Latsis Prize and the European Latsis Prize, of SFr100,000 each.
Mirjam Christ-Crain studied medicine in Basel, obtaining her medical diploma in 1999 and the degree of doctor of medicine in 2000. She then specialised in endocrinology.
From 2005 to 2007 she was a research fellow and PhD student at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, where she then obtained a PhD in 2008.
She also became senior doctor at the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Nutrition at Basel University Hospital.
In 2009 she received a Swiss National Science Foundation professorship, which funds the establishment of an independent team to implement a research project. This enables junior researchers with several years of recognised research experience to progress in their academic careers. She also became head doctor of the same division.
Christ-Crain has received numerous awards and prizes within the field of infectious diseases and endocrinology. She is the author of over 60 original studies which were published in peer-reviewed international journals and has published many reviews.
She and her team are continuing the stress hormone research, with several major studies being carried out.