Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas lunch at the PRBB

Yesterday December 17th we celebrated Christmas at the PRBB with a meal for all residents. Lunch took place at 1’30pm at the restaurant, and moret han 800 people attended!

Previously, the PRBB Choir (in which I sing!) gave a concert. We went floor to floor, starting on the 7th, singing two songs in each floor, and bringing our club of fans that grew a bit more with each floor we descended. We finished at the ground floor, were lots of people were waiting to go into the restaurant to eat, and sang all 7 or so songs we had prepared. Everyone loved it and it was really good fun!

I’ll see if i can post some videos of the choir here at some point.

By the way, the choir is only one of the “social activities” the PRBB organises for its residents. As you should by now know, there is also a group of capoeira, and soon there will be a theatre one! Also, PRBB residents on their own organise themselves to play football, basketball, and God knows what else…!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Two million euros of the Marató will go to researchers at PRBB

More than two million euros, out of the seven million collected by the Marató de TV3, will go to research projects from the centres at the PRBB, some of them in collaboration with other centres, such as the CSIC and the CNIC.

159 groups from all over Catalonia have applied for the grants of the Fundació “La Marató de TV3”, which this year has given the money collected from particular individuals, entities or companies to the study of cardiovascular diseases. From these projects, only 26 were selected, and 6 of them are from researchers at the PRBB.

The projects that will receive funding– between 200,000 and 500,000€ each – are directed by Roberto Elosua (IMIM-Hospital del Mar), Cristina López (CEXS-UPF), Miguel Valverde (CEXS-UPF) and Mariano Senti (IMIM-Hospital del Mar ), James Sharpe (CRG), Antonio García de Herreros (IMIM-Hospital del Mar) and Jaume Marrugat (IMIM-Hospital del Mar) and Nino Kuenzli (CREAL).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Videos and podcasts by scientists at PRBB

Hi there,

The Intervals courses that have been going on at the PRBB are being a great success, and you can see here some of the results. (Intervals is the programme for continuing professional development that is offered to all PRBB residents since this year).

Enjoy the videos, and podcasts produced by the participants in the Intervals courses “Programme Visual Story Telling” and “Radio and Podcasting summer workshop”.

Congratulations and many thanks to Bélen, Antonios, Tom, Rosa, Marta and Joan Marc, Anna, Rui, Maruxa, Carla, Uli, Dani, for all their hard work. We hope their videos, and podcasts will inspire other PRBB residents to join the Intervals courses next year and let their imagination run free!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Happy day

Obama has won the American elections!!!!

That has, one would hope, positive implications for everything (external politics), but also for science. His predecesor believed in intelligent design, didn't understand (or didn't care about) global warming, banned public research on stem cells, and freezed the research budget of the NIH. Will all change now? Let's hope so...

Monday, November 3, 2008

Open Day and: Water in Canada, not for all

Just a quick entry to say that the Open Day was a great success!!!! (I wasn't there, regretfully, but it seems lots of people came to do experiments, visit the laboratories, listen to the scientists explaining why research is important, etc.).

You can check the PRBB Open Day website for some more info on what happened, or check this blog. And make sure you keep the date for next year!

Another (completely unrelated) thing, something I learned today at one of the scientific conferences that take place here at the PRBB. The speaker was Louise Potvin, from the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine of the Université de Montreal in Canada, and her talk was entitled "Public Health Interventions: A Cause of Health Disparities?".

So, here's the fact: Even though Canada has the largest reserves of fresh water in the world, the Aborigen reserves in the north of the country don't have drinking water!!!!!

I've always liked and admired Canada and its people, but obviously they (or at least their leaders and responsible people) are not doing enough...


Thursday, September 18, 2008

On 4h of October, Science for everyone!!!!

I cannot believe it's been so long, and again I have no time to write...

But I do want to invite you all to the PRBB Open Day that will take place on Saturday October 4.

Discover the science and the real life of researchers in the fascinating elliptical building at the beach of Barcelona. On Saturday, October 4, the large European infrastructure PRBB with more than 1.200 people doing research in biomedicine invites the public to an open day. A group of young scientists from the centers at the park have set up a full day program with experiments, videos, posters, a scientific round table session and a final party with live music and DJs. The different activities for families with children, students or simply curious people start at 11am and last until midnight.

The public will be able to do real experiments to extract DNA, observe proteins or living cells and learn about various biological concepts through posters and talks with researchers at the Charles Darwin square at the sea side of the building. Guided visiting tours through the research park and its laboratories are scheduled between 11am and 6pm and a bar and sandwich service is provided during the day. Why it is necessary to invest in science and what all this is for, will be discussed at a roundtable at 7pm. The day closes with a final party at 8.30pm that is open to everybody.

The Open Day is an initiative of “Science Meets Society”, a group of young and mostly international researchers from the different centers at PRBB, who want to engage and share knowledge with the “non-scientific” public.

The Barcelona Biomedical Research Park PRBB is an initiative of the Catalan Government, the Pompeu Fabra University and the city of Barcelona and assembles various research centres and technology platforms. PRBB provides a fresh and innovative approach to give answers to basic and clinical issues in biomedicine. The different research centers at the park that support the “Open Day” initiative are IMIM, CRG, CEXS-UPF, CMRB and CREAL.

Monday, August 4, 2008

ESOF - day 1

Wow! Such a long time without writing and now, so many things happened in such a short time, I don't have time to tell you about it all.

It's because of the ESOF, the European Science Open Forum which started last Friday and which joined 4800 participants from all Europe. There was just too much going on from Friday till Tuesday, it was impossible to see it all (and continue with your work and life!). But here's an excerpt of some of the things I've seen.

The inauguration was presented by a very good guy, Toby Harper. He's an actor who I assumed leaves in Barcelona (his Catalan accent was very good!) and did a great presentation during the whole evening. He pointed out nutrition, HIV/AIDS, petrol prizes and global warming as the big issues of our time, and indeed some of them were subjects extensively discussed during the whole forum.

Then came the politicial speeches (8 people in total, a little bit too much), before Pedro Alonso, a researcher who studies malaria and just got the Premio Príncipe de Asturias for his work, gave the inaugurational speech, entitled “Global Health Challenges”.

Alonso mentioned how health had improved a lot, in all parts of the world, over the last centruy, with an increase in the life expectancy of 25 years (this, I assume, in the developed world). He made a specific mention of the erradication of smallpox as being the biggest achievement in medicine (and even in science) of all times so far.

Yet, despite this encouraging start, communicable diseases were mentioned as the biggest challenge in medicine right now. He talked about the close relationship between diseases such as AIDS, TB and malaria, and poverty, citing Winslow: “Men and women were sick because they were poor, they became poorer because they were sicker, and sicker because they were poorer” (here's some food for thought!).

Continuing with this link and the unfairness of the situation, he confesed that from the 1,233 drugs that came into the market in the last 25 years aprox., only 13 were for tropical diseases that affect mainly the poor. Also known as the Gap 90/10, 10% of the global research budget is for diseases that cause 90% of the disease-burden. 40% of the population live in countries were malaria is endemic, and a person dies from malaria every 30'' (that's about 5 or 6 people dead since you started reading this entry!!!!!). Another negative effect of malaria, less obvious than the deads, is the economic slaughter it causes in already struggling countries. Alonso gave an estimate of $12 bilion/year for the money that has probably been lost in Africa due to malaria.

It's amazing how we've heard these things time and again, and we are shocked when we hear them (for the nth time), and yet, we keep on forgeting... Let's hope at least these 5 days of ESOF have help everyone reflect about the role of science in the world (all the world), and how we should help science help us.

(just to finish on a brighter note: after Alonso's interesting talk, Pep Bou came along, a Catalan architect, it seems, who currently earns his life and entertains huge audiences making impossible soap bubbles on a stage. Check the pictures!)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm running around like a headless chicken

I can't believe it's been so long since I last wrote...!

Well, I have to run off again now, for the capoeira class that is starting in 20 mintues - it's been about a month now we are running these classes at the PRBB and they are a success - people who come are really enjoying them and they are getting to know each other well, which is one of the objectives of the classes!

But hopefully I will soon have time to tell you about some of the new Intervals courses that are happening here - really exciting stuff!

See you soon!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Our misunderstood friend the wind

Here's a video in you tube. Very good add in favour of eolic energy!

Friday, June 13, 2008

What comes after a PhD?

PhD students and young postdocs from all centres of the PRBB will have the opportunity to learn from first hand about some of the alternative career paths that lay in front of them.

Next Friday June 27th the Professional Guidance in Science day will take place. This is an initiative from the CRG PhD students, and it's goal is to offer the young researchers of the PRBB an overview of career options in science different to the usual one of continuing in academic research.

During the whole day (from 9 am to 5 pm) we will have speakers from different fields such as science communication, technology transfer and companies. We will allocate a great deal of the time to informal discussions and information exchange between the speakers and the young researchers.

Each speaker will give a short 30 min presentation followed by 10 minutes of questions. The presentations will focus on their experience: the training they've received and their professional trajectory up to the point where they are now, referring also what their job consists of, the ups and downs, required skills, the challenges they’ve been faced with and also career possibilities.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The first workshop of the PRBB Intervals programme, a success

The intervals programme of the PRBB has just started. It offers PRBB residents “a break from their normal day to day work, to step back and reflect on the world in which they are embedded and to discuss and learn from each other by sharing ideas”, in words of Elinor Thompson, the organiser of the programme.

The activities of Intervals centre on two main themes:

- Skills and learning for a flexible future
- Biomedicine and Society

So far, a ‘media skills’ workshop took place, given by Eric May. He is American but lives in Germany, and has loads of experience in communication, especially on TV, including 20 years as an editor/producer for CBS in San Francisco.

The workshop was one day and we were about 10 people, mostly PhD students and postdocs (and me! I still don’t know how to define myself…). It was great, and we learned a great deal: about the importance of understanding the audience you are talking to; about how the media professionals and scientists are not that different after all…; how to react in a crisis situation (e.g. a TV interview in which you are suddenly accused of fraud in your research); about how to choose an effective sound bite (and what a sound bite actually is!  a 15-20 seconds stretch of interview that is chosen to be introduced into a news story or documentary. The most important thing is that it has to convey a whole thought); etc.

It was very practical and good fun, and I hope there will be more like this! All partakers participated very actively and I think they all took some good messages home. I certainly did.


Next date for the diary: Tuesday June 3rd (next week!!). Nobel Prize laureate Sir Harry Kroto will come to the PRBB to give a general talk on "Science, society and sustainability” in the morning. At 4pm he will continue with a seminar for PRBB residents, to show us how to communicate science in a creative way…

I won’t miss it!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A successful capoeira workshop with continuity

I am very glad to say that the two-day capoeira workshop that took place at PRBB in May was very successful amongst the partakers. So much so that the movements and songs they learned felt too little and they all want to learn more about this Brazilian martial art. And they will, with the new capoeira regular classes that are being organised and that will start next June at the PRBB.

Capoeira classes will be once a week, from 7 to 9pm. The day is yet to be decided, but it's sure to be a lot of fun!!

Here's some pictures of the 'taster workshop'.

Heroine and other anecdotes of the brain

Did you know that heroine was first synthesized and commerciased by Bayer in 1898 as the 1st non-addictive analgesic opioid? Yep!

Opioids are substances that contain morphine or morphine-like molecules and have therefore two main characteristics: they are very potent analgesics (they decrease the pain), but they are also very addictive. Since they were discovered about 200 years ago, pharmaceutical companies have always tried to find the ‘perfect analgesic’, with zero addiction problem. Bayer thought it had got it right 110 years ago, but nope: heroine turned out to be even more addictive than morphine!

To date, still no miracle analgesic exists, and the addiction problem is ever bigger.

Brigitte Kieffer, from the Institut de Génétique et de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire in Strasbourg, gave a talk at the PRBB yesterday precisely about opioid receptors and how they affect brain function. She was involved in the cloning of the very first opioid receptor, and has done a lot of research into the subject since then.

She fave a nice historical talk and explained what she has found out about two of the three opioid receptor families: Mu and Delta. In a nutshell, Mu receptors are involved with the pain and reward mechanisms, while Delta is more related to emotional responses.

There’s so much more to be learned about this exciting subject. The brain is a mistery that we might never decipher completely…

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A humanised mouse cell

This image is by David Domínguez, a researcher from IMIM, and it shows a heterocarion, a fusion between a mouse and a human cell, dyed with three different colours. In the first image, in blue, we can see the DNA and the granular chromatin of the mouse nucleus, compared with the human. The second one, in green, shows the DNA which is replicating (both the murine and human), and in the last one we can visualise the cytoplasmic vesicles in red and the two nuclei in black.

The creation of heterocarions is used to study proteins that come in and out of the nucleus. In this case, mouse cells synchronised at the beginning of the cell cycle (G1 phase) were fused with human cells in S phase, during which DNA replication takes place. The mouse nucleus, in G1, does not have the factors needed for DNA duplication, but the human one, in S phase, does. After the fusion, these factors can travel from the human to the mouse nucleus, giving it the capacity to synthesize DNA, as we can see in the green image.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Sant Jordi celebration at PRBB

Books and roses, but also ‘sardanes’, capoeira and rock and roll. This is what the nearly 200 people who participated in the Sant Jordi party at the PRBB could enjoy last April 22. And everything was done by the residents themselves. They brought the 275 books that were exchanged on the day; a collection of genre and language as varied as the PRBB community itself. And the residents organised also the shows that took place after the book exchange: a ‘sardanes’ workshop, the Catalan dance par excellence, and a ‘roda de capoeira’, a Brazilian martial art nowadays extended all over the world. In between the shows, sandwiches and drinks kept the public entertained. The final climax were the concerts by ‘ReStart’ and ‘Puri López’, two rock and roll groups in which Mara Dierssen (CRG) and Ferran (UPF) sing, respectively.

The Hospital del Mar also celebrated April 23 by publishing the Sant Jordi book of IMAS 2008. This was the 11th year of this initiative, which compiles narrative and poetry writing by professionals at IMAS. All together a very animated and colourful Sant Jordi!

** Sant Jordi is the patron of Catalonia - it's the equivalent of Saint George, on the 23rd of April, a very special day for all Catalan people!

*** Photos by Javier Sin

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Actually, a lot of love

The first café científico was a great succes!!! I could not be there, regretfully, but have been told there were about 130 people and they were all very interested and excitied about the topic, leaving their emails for follow up activities and giving lots of feedback. Well done everyone who helped in the organisation!

The coming cafés will be on June 10th (my birthday!) about transgenic food, and on July 1st about the human genome. Let's hope this success story is repeated!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Coffee, neurons and love

What happens in our brain when we fall in love? Can science help us find Mr. Perfect? These and other questions will be answered next Wednesday May 7 during the first Scientific Café organised by the “Science meets Society” group, an initiative of PhD students and postdocs working at the CRG. Mara Dierssen, researcher at the CRG, Adolf Tobeña, psychiatrist at the UAB and Elena Crespi i Asensio, psychologist, will briefly introduce the neurobiology of falling in love. Later on, the audience will be able to ask all those questions that are in their brains. Come to the CCCB cafeteria in Raval (Montalegre 5) at 7’30pm and learn what happens in your neurons when you see that sexy person, all while enjoying a coffee.

Remember, next Wednesday May 7 at 7'30pm @ CCCB. See you there!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What are we?

I’m just coming from a talk by Didier Raoult, who has come to the PRBB to give a seminar (this is part of the CRG-PRBB seminars, which happen about twice a week. They are open to everyone and usually bring very good quality speakers from outside the park, many from abroad).

He told us about what he has learned by studying Ricketsia genomics (Ricketsia is a family of intracellular bacteria that cause many diseases and are usually spread by arthropods). He said many interesting things, such as the idea that the most virulent species are not so because they have a ‘virulent factor’, but rather because they have lost some regulatory genes and are not able to communicate with their host and adapt to it. For example by not dividing when there’s no food, so instead they keep on growing and eventually kill the host.

But one amazing thing I learned, and I had never realised, is that we cannot call ourselves eukaryotes, as most of us would happily do. We are, actually, an ecosystem. For every eukaryotic cell in our body, we have at least 10 archaeal cells, and who knows how many bacterial cells. So we are actually closer to be a bacterium than an eukaryote! It’s a funny thought. He went further saying that even if we got rid of all our bacteria, archaea and virus, we would still not be a pure eukaryote, since the mitochondria in each of our cells are of bacterial origin. And removing the bacteria would also not do the trick – some genes involved in mitochondrial function are nowadays integrated in the human genome.

Monday, April 21, 2008

DNA rocks

Millions of DNA molecules came out of the Espacio Moviestar marquee in little plastic tubes last April 10 and 11. Their owners had visited the PRBB stand at the “Live Research” fair organised by the PCB. About 1,300 people, mostly students between 14 and 20 from 36 different schools went to the fair to learn about how oceans move or how to use virtual reality to stimulate a brain affected by ictus. At the PRBB stand, Hagen Tilgner (CRG), Eneritz Agirre (UPF-GRIB) and myself explained to the assistants the Encode and Eurasnet projects, two international networks in which groups from the different centres at the PRBB work. The aim of these projects is, respectively, to catalogue all the functional elements of the DNA and to study alternative splicing at a genomic level. The participants showed a great interest in the research, demonstrated by the many interesting questions asked. However, the excitement they felt about the DNA extraction from their own saliva beat everything else.

p.s. I, however, did NOT manage to extract my own DNA... :(

Friday, April 18, 2008

PRBB scientists communicate science to young people from their own lab

How does a laboratory look like? What is done there? How do people work in it? Many young people wonder about these issues, and scientists at PRBB are helping to answer their questions.

The CRG and CEXS-UPF have participated this year in the Escolab project (, an initative in which scientists from Barcelona organize activities directed to students at high school in their own research centres, universities or companies. The IMIM, on the other hand, has continued with its own program, ACCÉS, which functions since 2005 by initiative of a group of researchers, and which has also the aim of spreading the scientific activity amongst high school students.

Yesterday was the last of the Escolab sessions organised by the UPF. High school students (ESO and “batxillerat”) of three different schools visited the PRBB facilities and saw how laboratories work and what research is done there. During the visit the students stopped at the confocal microscopy and genomics services, where the technicians in charge of them, Xavi Sanjuan and Roger Anglada, explained to them in a very clear way how this complicated techniques work. The participants could also observe some biological images. Fernando Giráldez then gave a very enthusiastic talk about developmental biology, with which he awakened the interest of many of the high school students who participated.

For the ESO students, a bit younger, there was another activity: a role game, in which they had to put themselves in the position of researchers who find themselves in front of an epidemic and have to discover its origin and propagation in order to stop in time. The game forced them to work in little groups of experts who have to cooperate to find a solution.

Escolab is driven by the Comissionat de Cultura científica de l’Institut de Cultura de Barcelona, with the collaboration of the Institut Municipal d’Educació de Barcelona.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

New date on Tuesdays at the PRBB restaurant

Place: PRBB restaurant. Date: one Tuesday per month. Time: 9’30-10am. We are talking about the “PRBB breakfasts”, a new series of informal talks which will take place at the above mentioned time and place. Their objective: to generate debates about general interest subjects and to create a greater interaction amongst all residents. The speakers will be either internal PRBB staff or external guests, and the participants will be able to enjoy a little breakfast with some coffee, juices, croissants, etc. The first appointment, attended by 94 people, was April 8th, when Elvira López, PPRR director of the PRBB, explained the activities programme for residents. Other planned ‘breakfasts’ will include the presentation of the new formation programme that the PRBB offers, that of the project, and other subjects such as recycling and sustainability in the park or the use of bicycles. Other subjects of interest for specific sectors that do not normally interact, such as the human resources departments of the different centres, will also be discussed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

PRBB participates at the “Live Research” fair

What is the genome? How different is one person from another one and why? How can we generate more than 150,000 proteins from only 30,000 genes? These and other related questions will be answered by scientists from the PRBB centres next April 10 and 11 at the fair “Live Research”, organized by the Parc Científic de Barcelona (PCB). Around 1,600 visitors are expected in the sixth edition of this free science fair that aims to show the research taking place in the different centres and research institutions of Barcelona.

I will be there, so I hope to post some pictures and a summary next week. I will also tell you if I succeeded in extracting my own DNA...!

Friday, April 4, 2008

What's PET? Molecular Imaging service from the IAT

The Institute of Advanced Technology (IAT is one of the most technologically advanced centres in southern Europe in molecular imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET and magnetic resonance. It was the first entity to be based at the PRBB in 2004, and it offers its services to the scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry.

PET, which is commonly used in oncology and neurosciences, consists on visualising molecules within the organisms in vivo thanks to the fact that these molecules are labelled with a radioactive isotope which emits positrons. It is used for the detection of tumours and the analysis of their development in response to treatment. In neurosciences it is useful for measuring the activity of new psychoactive drugs.

The IAT has a cyclotron (of 23 tons of weight) inside a bunker in the basement. The cyclotron is a particle accelerator that converts stable elements into radioisotopes, which are then transferred to the radiochemical laboratory. Once in the laboratory, the radiotracers (the molecules of interest with a radioisotope incorporated) are synthesized. The radiotracers are then administered to the patient or the laboratory animal, who is subjected to the PET or micro-PET, where the radiation emission is converted into an image in a non-invasive manner.

The IAT, currently with a staff of 22 people, is a non-for-profit foundation fostered by the ‘CRC Corporació Sanitària’ group, the Municipal Institute for Health Assistance (IMAS), the CLINIC Corporation, and the Foundation ‘Institut de Recerca Hospital Universitari Vall d’Hebron’.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Stem cells: generation and regeneration

Stem cells are a hot topic - but what are they, exactely?


Every one of the millions of cells of the human body, with the exception of germ cells, contains the same DNA sequence, that is, the same instructions. In an embryo, at the initial steps of development, all cells are equivalent and can give rise to any type of cell. The so-called embryonic stem cells maintain this property indefinitely; this is why it is said they are totipotent (they can give rise to all types of tissue). How a full organism, formed by different types of cells, can be generated from a single cell is precisely what is studied in developmental biology. Stem cells are dividing constantly, giving rise to daughter cells which, at a given time, will activate their cellular differentiation program - marked by the activation of specific genes- and will become a specific type of cell: a cardiac cell, a skin cell, etc.

It is the totipotency of stem cells what interests scientists and the base of their future use in regenerative medicine, whose aim is to regenerate tissues, such as muscle, or to cure diseases such as Parkinson and Alzheimer. The idea is to transplant stem cells into the damaged tissue, and that these cells then generate new cells of the type that is needed.

Working with embryonic cells is an ethically controversial subject, and so scientists from all over the world are looking for new sources of stem cells. One possibility are the stem cells that can be found in the bone marrow. These adult stem cells are not able to generate all types of cells, but can differentiate into a variety of blood cells during their life. Scientists hope to be able to reprogram these adult stem cells so that, instead of generating only blood cells, they are able to generate any type of cells, as embryonic stem cells do.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Research at PRBB - Dr Maldonado's addiction

Drug abuse and emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are generating a serious social problem. This is why Dr. Maldonado’s neuropharmacology group at the CEXS-UPF studies the common biological mechanisms involved in these two phenomena. They focus particularly in nicotine, cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy, and in the possible mechanisms underlying the abusive consume of these substances.

Dr. Maldonado explains there are three factors to understand why some people become addictive and others don’t: drug consume (the quantity, the frequency, the mode); social and environmental factors; and individual vulnerability, which includes genetic factors. A classical example of the effect of the environment is how the American marines that were heroin addicts in Vietnam quitted easily once back at home.

In order to understand addiction and emotional disorders, the group, formed by 29 people from 4 different nationalities, uses different techniques: classical pharmacological strategies, using compounds that act on the nervous system receptors; ‘knock-out’ mice in which a specific gene has been deleted in order to understand its function; and animal models for behaviour studies which, according to Dr. Maldonado, are very complex but once they are established they allow a good prediction of what can happen in humans.

Dr. Maldonado highlights the discovery that specific components of the endogenous opioid system are a common substrate for different addictive behaviours as a major contribution of his group. His dream: that this knowledge gives rise to effective treatments for the addicts, who are people with a chronic disease, Dr. Maldonado emphasizes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

NO meat this week

did you know that a cow produces an equal amount of greenhouse gas as a car driven 10.000 km per year!! Do this month's green thing ( GO EASY ON MEAT

Friday, March 14, 2008

I am an addict

The dopaminergic areas of my brain are activated, giving me a feeling of pleasure via the so-called reward system; the serotonin is kicking in, which explains my obsessive behaviour. And I am on “a high” of noradrenaline that causes me excitement and self-assurance. I am not a drug addict. I am just in love.

Yesterday I learned that the brain reacts in a very similar way when we take drugs than when we kiss our loved one. Mara Dierssen, a researcher at CRG, illuminated me and about another 100 people on this subject, during a talk at the Palau de la Virreina. This was the closing event of the Brain Awareness week, which is organised by the American Society of Neuroscience and celebrated in 60 different countries at the same time. In Barcelona, Mara has been for years in charge of organising a series of talks and other events (including concerts) during this week, in order to reach the public and teach them some of the things we know – and the many we still don’t - about the brain.

And so yesterday we learned that if one where to look at the brain areas of people in love (or at mothers filled with maternal love for their children) one would see that the areas where negative emotions come from are inactivated, and so are those related to social judgements. This is why our partner, or our children, are always perfect to our eyes, and nothing they do feels wrong (…up to a certain point, of course!).

There were many other interesting questions raised. For example, is infidelity genetic, or can it at least be explained chemically? Well, scientific studies show that a genetic difference between two types of very similar mice makes them have very different behaviours: the first type (that have a long version of a specific microsatellite) are very promiscuous, while the other ones (with a shorter version) are monogamous. Oxitocine is a hormone that was also higher in this last group. Scientists have shown that when oxitocine was inhibited in the monogamous mice, they did not recognise their partner anymore. On the other hand, adding the short microsatellite to promiscuous mice made them more sociable and more likely to stay with the same partner… although only in about 3% of these, this new ‘monogamy’ lasted for their whole life. In any case, don’t start making any plans... Mara pointed out repeatedly that no human extrapolations can be made, although it seems likely that, as all complex behaviours, infidelity might have some genetic element, as well as a very important environmental influence.

So what is, in essence, the secret to a long and stable relationship? A high level of oxitocine, plenty of dopamine… and a constant delivery of chocolates, flowers and sweet tender words!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The IMIM Foundation IMIM will manage the international project GEN2PHEN

Due to their great experience in the management of complex projects and their reputation at an European level, the office formed by Carlos Díaz, Raquel Furió, Eva Molero i Nathalie Villahoz from the IMIM Foundation, has been selected to externally manage GEN2PHEN, an international project funded by the EC and coordinated by Leicester University (UK), in which 19 research institutions participate.

The aim of this ambitious project, with a budget of 12 M€ and a duration of 5 years, is to create technologies that help integrating the existing databases that show how gene sequences (genotype) contribute to the differences between individuals regarding disease, drug response and other characteristics (phenotype). This information will be very relevant for the future prognostic, diagnostic and treatment of several diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular diseases.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Pursueing the logic of life

Ricard Solé, an ICREA group leader at GRIB and external Professor at the Institute of Santa Fe (US), aims to understand what the common laws of organization of both natural and artificial complex systems are. This 45-year-old Catalan scientist received the Premi Ciutat de Barcelona in 2003 for his studies on the complexity of language. Now, his team is part of PACE, an interdisciplinary group of European researchers trying to build a very simple artificial cell that is able to self-replicate and evolve under controlled conditions.

How would you define life?
The consensus is that life is a system far from equilibrium with the capacity of auto replicating and evolving. It needs a compartment that isolates it (the membrane), an information system to adapt to new conditions (for example DNA) and a minimal metabolism. These are the three basic processes, and several studies suggest that life defined as such is the only possible solution to get an auto replicating system.

So if we were to find life in other planets it would have these same characteristics?
We believe so. But at a practical level, it is interesting to create a model that does not evolve, that always does that for which it has been designed. So, we have also created models without information, unable to evolve.

Why creating an artificial protocell?

To begin with, being able to answer the big question that human beings have been wondering for centuries: is it possible to cross the border from inert matter to life? And there are also potential medical and technological applications, such as cells that can capture CO2 or create biofuel, or cells that can substitute liposomes for medical treatments.

It certainly has great potential, but it carries ethical and security implications…
The cells we are trying to create are very simple and totally artificial: none of the three elements they contain exist in the wild. We use artificial genetic material called PNA (peptide DNA), as well as special lipids for the membrane. And the only metabolic reaction they do is not found in nature. It consists in capturing the light and breaking a precursor molecule into two pieces: one will be part of the membrane, and one of the information system. Therefore, these cells could not live outside of a very controlled environment and do not represent any danger. Other groups, however, start with a living organism and eliminate the non-essential elements until they get to the minimal genome. These modified organisms come from living matter and therefore they would have more opportunities to survive in the wild… In any case, in PACE we have annual meetings about ethics to talk about these issues.

How old is this field?

It’s been years that people are working on it, but until recently it was nearly alchemy. In the last 4 years several groups have started working on this seriously. Now the theoretical models are complete and, experimentally, we have managed to combine all possible pairs of the three basic elements. I think the missing step to integrate the whole machinery can be done in 3 or 5 years.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Nature Chief Editor talks to master students in Barcelona

Yesterday I attended a conference by Dr. Philip Campbell, Chief Director of Nature. The occasion was the inauguration of a Master in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication that is given by the UPF, and the title of the talk was “Communicating science to researchers, science's stakeholders and public”.

He raised some interesting points and mentioned some anecdotes that I think exemplify the importance of scientists communicating their work to society.

Example 1: A law was ready to pass in Switzerland (where the constitution can be changed if enough people ask for it in a referendum) to completely ban any type of GMO from the market. This was avoided only because scientists joined forces and created a lobby to start explaining to the public the benefits of GMO in some fields (such as medicine), to convince them, to make them understand why the job they were doing was important.

Point 2: how can the public treat uncertainty in science and yet maintain their trust in science? i.e. how can people believe in what scientists say and at the same time understand that nobody is actually sure that what they are saying is true? Should we (science communicators, be either scientists or journalists or others) not talk about the uncertainty part in order to avoid chaos and mistrust? He said no, and I totally agree. That would be a patronising attitude, and we should not treat the public as if they were stupid. They are perfectly able to understand – if WE are able to explain it to them properly – that biology or medicine are not exact sciences; that research means coming up with theories, finding evidence that supports them or goes against them and that there is contradictory evidence (life is contradictory, everyone can understand that!) and some theories or some experiments may take years to be proven or replicated (Philip mentioned an example of an experiment in angiogenesis that nobody was able to replicate for years, but that ended up proven to be right). And that despite this, research is good; that science makes the society advance; that it is good to know ‘the truth’, even if it is to find out later that it wasn’t exactly right; that step by step (and even if some of these steps are backwards) we are going in the right direction.

Idea 3: Philip said scientists should be more willing to make a stand about things that are important. He mentioned evolution vs. creationism, and for him evolution is not a theory anymore, but a fact, since we have now enough fossils to not have any big gaps in the evolutionary history explanation. Another example was climate change, and he directed us to a the website This is website “about climate change by climate scientists”, in which scientists working in the field write comments, in an easy to understand way, about recently published papers related to climate change. This is to try to avoid misunderstandings or overstatements by the general media. Before these have a chance to change the story, real scientists give their expert opinion on the matter directly.

He talked about many other things but these were the three main messages I took home and wanted to share here. Be an active communicator, don’t be patronising, make a stand!!!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Harvard "joins" PRBB

It is in everyone’s mouth that Harvard University faculty of Arts and Sciences has approved an open access policy for scholarly research. By default, research articles will be published on-line and available for free. The faculty member will retain copyright and can opt out of the system.

I am, of course, extremely happy to hear that. Harvard is a very high profile and prestigious university, and this policy will hopefully give the Open Access (OA) movement a big thrust.

As I have mentioned in a previous entry, we at the PRBB have been doing something similar for the last six years. Any person interested in the research taking place in any of the PRBB’s six public research centers has been able to search for all articles published by the 840 scientists associated with them. The approximately 550 papers published per year can be found through a search engine on the PRBB website that simply retrieves a free, immediately accessible PDF copy of the full-length article.

I am glad that Harvard has decided to take a similar step forward, and I hope that this is just the beginning and that people who want a wider, opener, more just and more sensible scientific knowledge dissemination will start to take a stronger stance for Open Access.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cell division

This is a photography by Luis Bejarano, from Dr. Isabelle Vernos’ group (programme of cell and developmental biology, CRG). SP5 confocal microscope from Leica.

Confocal microscopy allows to visualise the structures within a cell, in this case one that is about to divide into two daughter cells. The microtubules (the green filaments) organise the chromosomes (in blue) before sharing them out between the two daughter cells.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A code for translational timing is unravelled by CRG scientists

DNA, mRNA, protein. This is the basic gene expression cycle, and an organisms’ wellbeing depends on its proper regulation in time and space. Scientists at the CRG have recently published in Cell a code that regulates how, when and in which amounts the mRNAs will be translated into proteins.

Some mRNAs – such as those implicated in oocyte maturation or synaptic plasticity – are stored until its time for their translation. There are three signals in the mRNA sequence that determine when it is ready to be translated. The scientists directed by Raúl Méndez have found a code that determines which combinations of these signals establish whether translation activation or repression will occur, as well as how and in which amount the mRNA will be translated.

To do this, they have used frog eggs, in which they studied 5 mRNAs that contained the three signals. By modifying their number and the separation between them they have defined which combinations give rise to which patterns of translational control. This could be confirmed with the help of Roderic Guigó (CRG) through a computational search for genes with these signals. In most cases (> 90%) the translation pattern was shown experimentally to be the one predicted by the new code. They also found that the specific pattern of each gene was conserved across 14 species. Also, using the code, the scientists were able to generate tailor-made translation patterns in synthetic mRNAs. “We are now wondering whether defects in the cellular machinery that reads the code could be implied in pathologies such as cancer”, says Méndez.

Friday, February 15, 2008

splicing - or how we generate more than 150,000 different proteins from about 25,000 genes

Even though the human genome contains only about 25,000 genes, these can produce more than 150,000 different proteins, making the immense human complexity possible. One of the explanations for this contradiction is splicing, a molecular phenomenon that five research groups at the PRBB are studying.

And what is it about? It helps reading the genes. Genes, the instructions to create an organism, are formed by some bits that make sense (full sentences or exons), and bits that are nonsense (random words or introns). Splicing eliminates introns, facilitating the reading of the instructions. Understanding splicing is fundamental, because without it, having the sequence of all genes, (the human genome) would be like having a book and not being able to read it.

And how does splicing help increasing protein diversity? Thanks to alternative splicing. Different cells, or the same cell in different conditions, can decide to include or not a specific exon (sentence) in the final instructions of a gene, the protein. And this decision modifies proteins giving them different actions, even opposite ones. The fact is that we know that nearly 30% of genetic diseases, such as neurofibromatosis, are due to splicing problems.

It is still a mystery how and why cells decide whether to include or not a specific exon in a protein. What is known is that each gene can generate between 2 and 5 different proteins – the most extreme case known is the Dscam gene from Drosophila, which can generate up to 32,000 different proteins.

Monday, February 11, 2008

“Science should help creating a more sceptic society”

I completely agree with the above sentence, one of the things Miguel Beato told me during an interview I did to him. If people understood the nature of science, of the scientific method, that nothing is ever set on stone but that to do research means to question everything that you thought you knew, that you can perhaps prove that something is wrong, but never, fully, that it is right. Then we would have far less problems with the overstatements of the media.

Here is a transcription of my interview to Miguel Beato, director of the CRG, which appeared in the PRBB journal ellipse:


Miguel Beato is one of the most internationally acclaimed researchers on the mechanisms of hormonal action, gene expression and breast and endometrial cancer. He studied Medicine at the Universitat de Barcelona in 1962. At a time where it was unusual to study abroad being so young, he left to Germany to do his PhD. There he lived and worked most of his life, until he came back to his country of origin nearly 10 years ago. A painting and photography lover, this self-taught scientist has helped to the creation of three research institutes: one in Germany, one in Seville, and the last one, of which he is currently the director, within the context of the PRBB in Barcelona: the CRG.

How did you become interested in science?
It runs in the family. My father was a gynaecologist, but also because due to the civil war he was not able to be a scientist, which was his real passion and the one he always tried to instil into me…

And you followed his steps…
Yes, I studied gynaecology and obstetrics, and I even worked in the Clinic he had in Burgos. Actually, in the two years I worked there I participated in about 500 labours! It was good fun, and I would have loved to be a male midwife. And it was an adventure, to get to the isolated villages sometimes I had to go by horse or donkey…

Why did you then decide to leave the practice of medicine?
I liked to dedicate time to my patients, but it was impossible, I had a minute and a half for each of them! So, I decided to go into a laboratory to do pathological anatomy, first in Madrid and then in Germany, where I did my PhD.

Why in Germany?
It was also due to a family tradition. My father did his PhD there, and met my mum there….

And from there, you moved to the US…
In the 70’s I went to Columbia, New York, where I stayed for 3 years, until I got an offer in Germany and I went back. This time I stayed there for nearly 30 years.

Why did you finally leave Germany?
After the German reunification there was a strong economic crisis. So I started looking for other things, ideally in a place with more light…

Such as Barcelona…
Well, first I created an institute in Seville and I also started other initiatives, but the most interesting thing was when Jordi Camí invited me to help them build the human biology faculty at the UPF. I thought it was a fantastic thing they were doing, it was an unsuspected project: a university that recruited internationally, not by the typical public official exams but instead by the objective selection of good candidates, etc. After this Andreu Mas-Colell, who was at the time the University Councilor, came with the idea of creating a basic research centre with a big critical mass next to the university. That was precisely what I wanted, so we created the CRG, which has since been an unforeseen chain of successes.

Which has been the best moment of your career?
The day I decided to come back to Barcelona.

What do you think of research in Spain and Catalonia compared with other countries?
Catalonia is better positioned than Madrid, despite its smaller critical mass, but the whole of Spain is in a quite bad shape, because most of the science is done by civil servants, and this way it cannot work. But I do believe that we are at an expansion point that, if all goes well, will help to put us in the place we belong to. We must stop consuming from the others and start producing knowledge ourselves. The culture of the 21st century is science. And society must advance along with science, so we scientists have the moral obligation of doing good science communication to the public.

What is the best thing about science?
The search for the truth. The most important thing that scientists can offer to society is their respect for the truth, the passion of the scientist who, when realising that he or she was wrong, is glad and says “now I am wiser”. The scientific method is what is important in science, that people learn to have an sceptical attitude towards reality.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Inner ear of a chicken embryo

Here's another beautiful scientific image. It's by Andrés Kamaid, from the Developmental Biology Unit of CEXS-UPF, and it shows a 20 µm (twenty-thousandth of a millimetre) section of the chicken inner ear, the sensory organ responsible for the perception of sound and equilibrium, at seventh day of development. The image shows the hair cells (red), and the innervating fibres (green) that connect them with the brain. Hair cells are depolarised by sound and release neurotransmitters to the fibre endings, which in turn propagate impulses to the central nervous system. The nuclei of the cells are stained in blue.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Three CRG young researchers receive recognition from the EU

The European Research Council (ERC), a funding body set up a year ago to drive European research policy by promoting scientific excellence, has recognised three young group leaders at the CRG as some of Europe's most promising new talents. Mark Isalan (I talked about him in a previous entry), Ben Lehner and Hernán López-Schier (the author of the nice zebrafish pic on one of my earlier blog entries) have been the recipients of an ERC Starting Grant. In the first year of this initiative they had to compete with more than 9,000 scientific proposals for the 300 existing grants. Finally, 24 of them went to Spanish centres, with more than half of these (15, or 5.3% of the total) recognising researchers at Catalan institutions.

The 300 bright minds selected are recent PhDs with an average age of 35, and 74% of them are male. The awarded budget is up to 2 million euros, and they have 5 years to carry out their projects. In the case of the three CRG researchers, Lehner will be trying to understand biological networks and their evolution; Isalan will be engineering zinc fingers to target cancer hub genes; and López-Schier will be studying regenerative innervation and neuronal circuit remodeling of sensory organs.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Researchers from the UPF develop a vaccine against foot and mouth disease

(an article from the PRBB newspaper, El·lipse)

The proteomics and protein chemistry group at CEXS-UPF, directed by David Andreu (in the picture), together with collaborators of the CSIC and the INIA, has developed a vaccine against foot and mouth disease. In pilot assays in pigs, the vaccine has given 100% protection against the infection.

Conventional vaccines, based on inactivated viruses, have disadvantages such as the need for a cold chain and the inherent risk to any infectious agent. In contrast, “new vaccines do not use the whole virus, but viral subunits” – says Andreu. “Our vaccine, for example, combines peptides that reproduce different antigenic regions of the virus”. By avoiding the infectious agent, the vaccine is completely secure and allows for an easy serological distinction between a vaccinated animal and a diseased one, says Andreu.

Foot and mouth disease is the animal disease with a higher economic incidence worldwide. For example, to eradicate the 2001 outbreak in the UK, 8 million cows and pigs were sacrificed, with a cost of more than 10,000 million euros. The consortium UPF-CSIC-INIA has requested the international patent for the vaccine, and will start the clinical assays in 2008, with the funding of Genoma España. Ironically, the no-vaccination policy of the EU implies that, so far, the vaccine won’t have a market in Europe. But it will have one in Latin America, where the clinical assays will take place, and in Asia and Africa.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Fast food and obesity risk

Researchers from the IMIM-Hospital del Mar have confirmed the relationship between the consumption of fast food (like burgers and fries) and the increase in the risk of suffering obesity in a Catalan population, in the first population study of the type done in Europe.

The researchers analysed data from 3,054 people from Girona, who were between 25 and 74 years old and from all socioeconomic levels. Their usual food ingest was collected, the energy value of their diet was calculated and other variables, such as physical activity and alcohol consumption or smoking, were taken into account. About 1% of the population studied consumed fast food more than once a week; they presented a lower dietetic quality which was not compensated by a balanced diet on the rest of the meals. Also, their risk of suffering obesity increased 129%.

American studies had already demonstrated the association between this diet and obesity, but according to Helmut Schröder, principal researcher of this study, “it is necessary to put the effects of the change in habits of our population in context, according to our life style”. Now it will be necessary that these results are taken into account when developing strategies to fight the increasing levels of obesity in Europe.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

La Caixa offers the CRG very competitive studentships

The CRG, one of the centers at the PRBB, together with the National Biotechnology Centre (CSIC), the CNIO, and the IRB, will receive 160 studentships for young researchers in the next four years, for a total value of 19 million euros, thanks to an agreement with La Caixa. La Caixa is a Spanish Savings Bank that uses part of its benefits for social work (charity, cultural events, social integration, etc.) including help funding research.

“These studentships will allow the best young researchers, both Spanish and foreign, to do their PhD in the four best biomedical research centers in Spain”, says La Caixa. Furthermore, the monthly salary, of 1,500€ for the first two years and 1,700€ for the last two, is comparable with that offered by the best international institutions.

This initiative alleviates the two major demands by Spanish researchers: the need for private companies to sponsor Spanish research and the need of importing talented scientists from other countries, in order to fight the ‘brain drain’.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Women in science: a minor majority

We have recently done a 'population survey' here at the Research Park where I work (PRBB), and I have to say that the results are quite striking. As I wrote in my previous entry, there is a surprisingly large percentage of foreign people here, which is not very common in Spanish institutes. We feel specially proud that some of these foreign people (as well as some Spanish people who came from abroad) are coming from renowned places such as the EMBL, the Max Planck Insitute, Harvard Medical School, the IMT in Marburg, the Salk Institute in San Diego or the Albert Einstein University in NY.

But the pride I feel seeing this great mixture of nationalities contrasts with the sadness and frustration that comes with seeing the gender bias that exists in research. This is not at all a problem of the PRBB, but a general one, but let me exemplify it with the data I have from my workplace.

Nearly 60% of the 1,300 residents of the PRBB are women and 63% of residents are less than 35 years old. So, young women, between 25 and 35 years old are the majority of the PRBB residents. PhD students are the largest community (227 people), after the administration and management staff (232). The number of senior researchers is, as expected, quite lower (166). But what is significant is the low representation of the female collective in this community; only 30% of the senior scientists are women.

So, while 60% is the average representation of women at the PRBB, this percentage decreases to 30% when we look only at the top level scientists. Actually, as you can see in the graph above, there is a very marked decrease in the female collective representation (clear green) as one goes up the ladder - starting from a 75% of female undergraduates! And I wonder, how do the 25% of science male students end up occupaying 70% of the senior research posts????

There is clearly something wrong here. Despite the shaking speed at which science advances, it seems that in the subject of gender equality we are going at snail pace. We seem to be in a better position than other sectors of the society (can you imagine that!?), but there really is still much to do.

I invite you to think of some of the reasons why this might be the case and, more importantly, to think of some possible solutions. Please write in this blog any comments or ideas you have...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

“We are more than 30 different nationalities”

About 1,300 people enter the PRBB building every day, of which about 100 are visitors. Apart from the residents and visitors, there are also the staff from external companies (cleaning, security, maintenances, etc.), different providers, participants in clinical studies or sporadic scientific collaborators. According to the information provided by the centres, the stable staff is of more than 1,000 people, distributed as follows: about 400 people at the IMIM-Hospital del Mar/CREAL (38%), about 300 at the CRG (29%), 225 at the CEXS-UPF (22%), 58 at the CMRB and 20 at the IAT, amongst others.

The administration and service personnel (PAS) represents 15.6% of the stable staff. If we add the technical personnel, we can see that the rest (the scientific staff) are about 70% of the total residents. Thirty per cent of this scientific staff are foreign (20.7% if we take into account all residents), a percentage that varies by centres. The CRG stands out with 70% of foreign scientists. At the IMIM/CREAL and the CEXS-UPF, the percentage of foreign scientists is 18%, and in smaller centres the numbers are also relevant (42.2% at the CMRB or 28.6% at the IAT). At the PRBB more than 30 nationalities work together, and this internationalization is a very distinctive aspect of the PRBB.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Lateral line of a zebrafish

This is a cool image from my friend Hernán López-Schier , principal investigator of the Cell and Developmental Biology programme of the CRG. You can see the head of a 1-week old zebrafish (Danio rerio), with the mechanoreceptor cells of the lateral line dyed in orange. The lateral line is a sensory organ that fish have in the form of little holes in their skin, and which allows them to perceive the fluctuations and the water currents. Thanks Hernan!

Monday, January 14, 2008

New celular insights into how muscles grow when doing exercise

Researchers at CRG have showed in an article published in January in Cell Metabolism that satellite cells (stem cells present in muscles) and the inflammatory molecule interleukin 6 (IL-6) are essential for the growth of the adult muscle fibers in response to a physical effort.

Skeletal muscles are formed by individual fibers, each containing several nuclei with genetic material. As muscles work more and more intensely, their mass increases and they incorporate new nuclei. However, the mechanisms responsible for this process have been difficult to determine for a long time.

The group directed by Pura Muñoz-Cánoves, with the collaboration of Luis Serrano, both of them at CRG, have now discovered that the muscles of mice who work intensely show an increase in IL-6 after one day. Furthermore, this increase in the cytokine, which is maintained for two weeks before decreasing again, induces the proliferation of satellite cells. Curiously high levels of IL-6 had previously been implied in the process of muscle wear out, says Muñoz-Cánoves. “An excess of IL-6 is not good, but its local and transient expression is needed for the muscle growth”.

According to Muñoz-Cánoves “these data will facilitate the discovery of new methods to restore the loss of muscle mass in old people or in those affected with diseases such as cancer or AIDS, as well as people with certain immobility”.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

More beautiful images

Here's another nice scientific picture. This image was obtained by Optical Projection Tomography (OPT), a new 3D imaging technique developed by James Sharpe, head of the systems analysis of development group at the CRG. On the left there is a surface view of the fly head, and on the right, an internal view of the same head provided by OPT. Two specific brain structures are labelled by arrows. This technique is helping provide new insight into neurodegenerative models in flies (Drosophila).

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Interview to Tony Kouzarides, Cambridge

This interview I made to Dr. Kouzarides appeared in the issue 6 of ellipse. He had come to the PRBB for a symposium organised by the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), one of the six centres at the PRBB:

Tony Kouzarides studies cancer in Cambridge, UK, a place he fell in love with while doing his PhD. He is now a Senior Group Leader at the Gurdon Institute, focusing on chromatin modifications. He is also a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation and of the Scientific Executive Board of Cancer Research UK. Kouzarides has also founded the companies “Chroma therapeutics”, a cancer drug discovery company in Oxford, and “AbCam”, an antibody reagents company in Cambridge. He usually goes only to 4 or 5 conferences per year, out of the 50 he is invited to give talks in. The CRG Symposium celebrated on November 9-10 was one of them.

What’s been the most exciting thing of the meeting?

Tom Gingera`s talk was interesting because of the fact that there are so many RNA transcripts coming from both strands of DNA and we don’t know what their function is or whether there is a role for them beyond transcription. For example, we do know that RNA regulates chromatin structure, so RNAs could also be involved in other processes related to DNA like replication, or recombination. The transcripts could also be transmitted to the next generation and then act straight away, for example setting up chromatin structure, without having to wait for transcription to start. This would be a very neat system because it has complementarity: it could go to the precise region and then act.

Define epigenetics.
The inheritance of traits that do not involve changes in the underlying DNA sequence.

What’s the next big issue in the field of epigenetics?

I think it is precisely to define what generates an epigenetic effect, what are the processes and the mediators, the inheritance components of epigenetic events.

What do you think of the PRBB?

I have been here several times and I think the PRBB is a fabulous place; the view is probably the best view from any institute in the world, and scientists are first rate. It is an example for the rest of Spain.

What do you think about science in Spain?

I think Spain needs more institutes like this one. There are so many good Spanish scientists abroad that need to come back. Spain is probably the fastest improving country in Europe at the moment in terms of biomedical research, but it still has some catching up to do. One problem is that money comes basically only from the government, and you can’t rely on it. You need people to contribute like they do in the UK. I’m thinking of creating a Cancer Charity in Spain –but that will need a change of attitude because people here are not used to donating money for research, as people are in the UK, for example, where Cancer Research UK collects 300 million pounds a year.

Will we ever be able to cure cancer?

We may not cure all cancers in the near future, but we will influence some of them considerably with the help of drugs developed intelligently, based on the knowledge we are gaining about basic biology. For example, there’s already a drug in the market based on histone deacetylase inhibitors, which are molecules that inhibit proteins involved in chromatin modification. And there’s more and more targets coming in. Intelligent drugs are already on the horizon.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Seeing inside the body

Happy New Year everyone!

After the Xmas delay, here I am again. I’ll start 2008 with some beautiful scientific pictures.

Here’s an image taken by the guys at the Institute of Advanced Technology (IAT), located in the basement of the PRBB. It is a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) of human brains. PET is an imaging technique which allows the measurement of cellular and molecular processes in vivo. It allows the detection of pathological anomalies before they become anatomical lesions, facilitating a real translational research.

The exploration is done with a very small amount – below any toxic threshold - of a radioactive element, an isotope which emits positrons and which is used to label a biological molecule or a new drug. When these have been labelled they are called radiotracers, of which nowadays there are more than 100. FDG-18 (a glucose analogue) is the most widely-used one in neurology, psychiatry and cardiology, and even more in cancer studies. This is because PET uses a fundamental characteristic of malign cells: the fact that they grow much faster then normal cells and so they need more glucose.

Once injected intravenously, the radiotracer continues its normal metabolic route, emitting a luminous signal which is detected by a PET camera. In the case of a disease, this will allow us to localise the focus of abnormal growth. If we are studying new drugs, we will be able to see where they accumulate, how and when they are eliminated, and to know what are the most appropriate doses. This way we can develop more efficient and secure drugs in less time and with less money. Also, PET is 100% non-invasive and it allows one to do repetitive explorations.

The IAT offers PET analyses in humans and micro-PET analyses in mice to all the centres at the PRBB and to pharmaceutical companies.