17 March 2019

My name is Hedi Claahsen. I am originally from Germany. I am a clinician, a paediatric endocrinologist working at the Amalia Children’s Hospital. Currently, I have a position as associate professor. I see children and adolescents with hormonal disturbances. In the last 10 years I specialised in adrenal diseases and disorders/differences in sex development (DSD). As chair of the Radboud DSD centre and founder member of the Radboud Adrenal Centre I defined a new research group with a focus on etiological/functional features of adrenal/gonadal diseases. My research is embedded within the RIMLS, theme Vascular damage.

When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up? Can you tell us something about your child years. 

I  grew up in a small city in Germany, very close to the Dutch border. I enjoyed playing guitar and piano and meeting with friends. As a teenager I organised summer holiday camps and other activities for children together with a team of friends meeting every week. I was always interested in medicine. My medical career started at the age of 12 years in our local small hospital  where I helped nurses with their work. I always knew that I wanted to work in a hospital but it was hard for me to decide what kind of work I would prefer. During school time I never thought I would become a researcher although basic mechanisms always fascinated me.

What was your previous academic training, where did you study and why that study? 

After finishing  High School with the “Abitur” I first started with a three year training as a children’s nurse at our local hospital. I felt that this was not the endpoint of learning about the basics in medicine. I got the great opportunity to study medicine in the Netherlands at the Radboud University Nijmegen while working as a nurse in night shifts. The study in the Netherlands was an exciting experience although I have to say that I first struggled with the Dutch and English language. I worked as a student assistant in the anatomy lessons (snijzaal) and in the animals lab. After finishing my study I started my pediatric training followed by training in pediatric endocrinology also at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. During this time I got 3 children : Nina, Tobias and Lukas, my greatest life experience!

The RIMLS motto is: ‘Today’s molecules for tomorrow’s medicine’. What does this mean for you? 

As a clinical researcher I am interested in translational research. I see patients with rare diseases. Every day, we struggle with clinical problems that are not yet solved. The strength of our research group is the clear translational focus with a strong collaboration between laboratory medicine (F. Sweep), experimental (P. Span) and clinical research. We discuss clinical problems and observations in our research team and try to find solutions. A good example of an unsolved question is the high prevalence of testes tumours in adolescents and adults with a special rare adrenal disease, congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). These tumours are not malignant but because of their location within the testis they are an important cause of infertility. It was hypothesized that these tumours are from adrenal origin and we wondered why there is “adrenal“ tissue within the testes. In the literature the tumors were called testicular adrenal rest tumors (TART). This was the starting point of our research on the etiology of these tumours. We now know from our own studies that these tissue consists of more totipotent cells (fetal cells?) and most likely have their origin in fetal life. We are sure that when we know more about the etiology of TART we can develop treatment strategies to prevent them: “tomorrows medicine”.  

Who is your great example as scientists? And please give a motivation why.

Prof Wiebke Arlt is endocrinologist, head of the department of endocrinology at the University in Birmingham and a world expert in the field of adrenal diseases especially steroid metabolism. I met her first during my PhD defense where she was invited as external examinator. She published a lot of new insights in the pathophysiology of adrenal diseases also starting with the description of an unsolved problem. She inspires me as a leader not only in the quality of her research but also in her way to give young investigators the possibility to explore their own capacities.

Which research discovery that you have made has made you most proud? 

Last year we had the great opportunity to study a cohort of Indonesian patients with severe congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)  with severe cortisol deficiency but surprisingly they survived without medication. Due to our strong collaboration with the Diponegro University in Semarang, Indonesia, we were able to evaluate their hormonal profile in more detail. We showed that these patients have no cortisol production but strongly elevated precursor hormones that are an important hallmark of this disease. Our in vitro studies showed that these precursors have similar cortisol activity on the glucocorticoid receptor. Our finding was never described before and will give new insights in the pathophysiology of CAH.  

Given unlimited finance what experiment would you perform?

I would create an animal model to study the role of adrenal precursors on the glucocorticoid receptor and to explore the aetiology of TART in more detail.

What does your working area (desk, office) look like and what does it say about you (or your research)? 

I need structure in my work and life. Therefore, my office is mostly quite clean. You can find a notebook, that is only readable by myself. I have always a “to do” list next to my laptop. And of course paintings of my patients and some photos of my family.

Nominate a colleague to be in the spotlight and what would you like to ask him or her?

I would like to nominate my colleague Paul Span. I know him since my PhD study in 2002. He is a brilliant researcher, hard worker and  trustful colleague.

What type of person are you, quick insights:

a) Mac or PC?                                : Mac
b) Theater or cinema?                 : Theater but also cinema
c) Dine out or dine in?                 : Sometimes in sometimes out
d) Ferrari or Fiat?                         : MINI!
e) Shopaholic or chocoholic?     : None of them
f) Culture or Nature                     : Nature

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