PhD candidate investigating the link between COVID-19 and testicular injury, recognized with prestigious award

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Stefanos Giannakopolous, PhD candidate.

Originally from Athens, Greece, PhD candidate Stefanos Giannakopoulos has come a long way to study at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine (UH JABSOM). While obtaining his BS in Biochemistry with Honors at Hillsdale College, Michigan, a professor suggested that he continue his studies in Hawaii.

“I applied for my PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) as my top choice due to the program’s prestige and type of research conducted by the investigators at JABSOM,” said Giannakopoulos.

Recently, he had been named as the recipient of the Windsor and Mary Cutting Award for Most Outstanding Doctoral Student in Biomedical Sciences (Pharmacology).

Giannakopoulos, who is interested in emerging infectious diseases, has been studying the effects of severe COVID-19 on testicular cells under the mentorship of Dr. Saguna Verma, professor in the JABSOM Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology.

“She has played a big role throughout my PhD training and has mentored/challenged me to develop a strong thesis project and learn different technical skills,” said Giannakopoulos. “Beyond that, she is an incredible role model and I aspire to be like her both inside and outside of the lab.”

Under her mentorship, Verma connected Giannakopoulos with collaborators at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, who provided him with valuable organoid models and experts in the field locally to help further strengthen his proposal. In fact, their collaborative study was recently accepted in the journal Plos Pathogens.

More on his research

Males with severe cases of COVID-19 can experience symptoms such as inflammation of the testicles, decreased levels of testosterone and low sperm count. The outcome of his study provides significant insights into how the testicles can be injured and what happens to their function when someone has been infected with the virus. His research will help us to understand better how SARS-CoV-2 can affect the reproductive health of males.

Additionally, the SARS-CoV-2 virus proteins have been associated with disease severity. He has been trying to discover the link between the disease severity and why Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately at higher risks of illness and from COVID-19.

This research is important because there have been different reports about how the virus affects testicles and male health even after someone has recovered from COVID-19.

“In the long term, our data may provide some biomarkers to monitor male reproductive health in recovered COVID-19 patients,” Giannakopoulos said.

As a student, he finds the virology field fascinating.

“The intricate pathways and interactions between the host and viruses pose a challenge for all scientists to understand and delving into the methodologies and concepts to delineate these interactions is my passion,” Giannakopoulos said. “I am beyond lucky to be able to contribute to the progress of understanding the mechanism of action of COVID-19.”

He hopes to continue doing basic research and develop his skills in the lab, specifically in the field of host-virus interaction. Long-term, he would like to contribute to the virology and immunology field in industry or academic positions.

When he is not in the lab, Giannakopoulos is an olympic weightlifter, a model/social media influencer or playing basketball (he was a Division 2 NCAA basketball player at Hillsdale College).

Additionally, Giannakopoulos was one of several students that received recognition for his outstanding presentation at the annual JABSOM Biomedical Sciences & Health Disparities Symposium in April 2023.

About the Award

The award, given in honor of Windsor and Mary Cutting, perpetuates their lifelong memory and dedication for biomedical sciences research, specifically pharmacology, conducted at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine. Dr. Windsor Cutting, founding dean of JABSOM was chair of pharmacology as well as an internationally renowned academician, medical scientist and clinician. Mary Cutting was a supporter of the medical school as well as founder and president of the Friends of the Medical School organization.