While the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI) employs many researchers at all stages of their career, our leadership team is made up of scientists and researchers with combined decades of experience in their fields. This is the first in a series of articles introducing the scientists who are leading our research to find effective treatments for ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Dr. Theo Hatzipetros, originally from the island of Cyprus, came to the US to pursue a career in biomedical research in the late 90s. Now, two decades later, Theo serves as the Director of Preclinical Pharmacology at ALS TDI, in charge of overseeing our efforts to find promising potential treatments for ALS through testing in animal models of ALS.
Dr. Hatzipetros’ education in biomedical research began at Illinois State University, where he received a M.S. in Neuroscience. He was drawn to the field because of the challenge of studying what is arguably the body’s most important but least understood organ, the brain.
“Neuroscience was exciting,” he says. “We knew less, and we still know less, about the brain than other organs, so I was drawn to it. There are a lot of cool techniques for studying the brain. Once I was in that space, I ended up focusing on neurodegeneration.”
In 2001, Dr. Hatzipetros came to Boston to pursue his Ph.D. in Pharmacology at Boston University School of Medicine.
“I always knew that I wanted to be in the pharmaceutical area of biomedical research,” he remembers of his decision to pursue his studies in one of the country’s biggest hubs of biotech innovation. “Coming to Boston was a conscious career decision that I had made many years before.”
For his doctoral thesis, Dr. Hatzipetros focused on a topic that informed his later interest in ALS research, though it might seem unrelated at first glance.
“My thesis was on the toxic effects of methamphetamine, a psychostimulant drug that is widely abused” he says. “Methamphetamine, like some pathological conditions, causes the death of brain cells. So [methamphetamine abuse] is actually a neurodegenerative condition, not unlike ALS.”
Dr. Hatzipetros’ first job after earning his doctorate was with Foldrx Pharmaceuticals, beginning as a postdoc and continuing for two years as a scientist in their Parkinson’s disease group. There, he applied many of the techniques he had learned studying the mechanisms by which methamphetamine destroys brain cells to the study of neurodegenerative diseases.
In 2011, Dr. Hatzipetros came to ALS TDI, starting as a Scientist I and working his way up until assuming the role of Director of Pharmacology in January of 2019. He was drawn to the organization because of its mission-driven culture and the ambition of the senior leadership.
“I liked the vision that [CEO] Steve [Perrin] and [Chief Scientific Officer] Fernando [Vieira] had for the company,” he says. “I knew ALS was, and still is, a disease that we badly need a cure for, because it’s so cruel. Parkinson’s, which is still a terrible disease, seemed mild in comparison to ALS. So, I bought into the mission.”
Today, he oversees the execution of multiple studies of experimental drugs in animal models of ALS. The main goal of his team is to find “hits,” or compounds that demonstrate efficacy as well as safety in animal models, that can then potentially move on into trials in humans. It is work that he takes great pride in, he says, because we can learn a lot from any experiment – those that demonstrate treatments that could be efficacious, but also those that show us what will not work.
“I’m proud of the volume of drugs we’ve tested,” he adds, “because it’s unfair to say that I’m any less proud of the work that went into proving a compound won’t work than one that shows efficacy. Every study that we do is well-thought out and well-executed. I'm proud about the volume and the quality of data we generate, not only the positive data, but also the negative data.”
Looking forward, Dr. Hatzipetros is hopeful for what is on the horizon in his team’s research at ALS TDI. He says that over the past two years, his team has found more hits in mouse models of ALS than in his first eight years combined. There is still a lot of research to be done before these compounds can potentially reach clinical trials, but the trend is encouraging.
“Just by virtue of the fact that we see more hits in the animal model, that will eventually deliver more hits in the clinic,” he says. “One thing that we like to say is, ‘more shots on goal equals more goals.’”
To learn more about the work being done at the ALS Therapy Development Institute head to our research page, here.