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.