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Their Ηeart’s in the Work and their Work’s in the Heart: Greek Fellows Contribute to the Zurich Heart Project

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and Europe. For end-stage heart failure, the only curative method of treatment now available is heart transplant, but the significant mismatch between needs and suitable donors means that potential recipients often face a long, uncertain wait.

While ventricular assist devices can offer an alternative treatment path, a number of problems with the existing technology remain unsolved. The Zurich Heart project, an interdisciplinary effort bringing together almost 20 research groups across institutions, aims to create a fully implantable assist device that resolves these problems.

“I strongly believe that through such collaborations, we can achieve scientific breakthroughs that positively impact our lives,” says ETH Zurich PhD candidate Nafsika Chala.

Chala, whose work focuses covering the interior surfaces of the implant—those that will be in contact with the patient’s blood—with the patient’s own cells, is one of three fellows from Greece currently contributing to the project through support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF).

SNF has supported the fellowship program since 2013, with an aim of contributing to international scientific efforts to improve health outcomes by tapping into the potential of early-career scientists in Greece. As another fellow who works with the sensors and control algorithms the implant employs, Konstantinos Magkoutas, puts it, he “is passionate about developing simple solutions for complex problems.”

The third fellow, Vasileios Exarchos, who is both a cardiologist and an experimental scientist, says that he works to serve as “a lively interface between my colleagues in the clinic and in the laboratory with one main scope, the development of new successful therapeutic strategies.”

Grant support to Hochschulmedizin Zürich for the Zurich Heart fellowships is part of SNF’s broader commitment to helping keep Greece’s scientific research ecosystem vibrant and productive by plugging it into the international scientific community. One notable example is the Greek Diaspora Fellowship Program, organized by the Institute of International Education in collaboration with the Fulbright Foundation in Greece and supported by a grant from SNF. Through the program, many dozens of scholars from the global Greek diaspora have had a chance to return to Greece to forge connections with colleagues, conduct research, work with students, and develop curriculum at Greek institutions. Other grants have helped give researchers at Greek institutions the resources to lead the way in discovery.

The support SNF offers researchers is not meant to be unidirectional, but rather to propagate in Greece and reverberate through international networks. Chala is already thinking about how her fellowship and work on the Zurich Heart project will enable her to give back in Greece.

“The fellowship from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation gave me the opportunity to become a PhD student at ETH, one of the best universities in the world, working on such an interesting and impactful project. This opportunity is key for my future steps in the field of biomedical engineering, providing me with important qualifications and skills for a pioneering research career. I look forward to transferring my knowledge and skills to the Greek community and to supporting Greek students and young researchers of the field.”