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in vivo October 2009


October 2009

Issue 08


Issue 08


Mix and match at the IRB Barcelona retreat

Class of 2009 hit the ground running

Following footsteps

The 25 PhD students of the class of 2009 barely had time to let the dust settle after their arrival at IRB Barcelona this fall. An agenda chock full of activities awaited them.

Becoming a PhD student is a daunting prospect. You may not know much about your new institute, your host lab or the city you have moved to. To tackle this, IRB Barcelona has launched another timely initiative this September, the Footsteps Programme.

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More than 100 IRB Barcelona researchers convened at a hillside resort to the north of Barcelona on October 1-2 to get down to science. The occasion? The 2009 IRB Barcelona scientific retreat. Page 03

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TV stars for a day

Faces to Names

IRB Barcelona researchers Jordi Casanova and Cayetano González got involved with the media in September and participated in a TV news report devoted to the fruit fly.

A conversation with IRB Barcelona principal investigator Manuel Palacín about his research work on amino acid transporters and rare diseases.

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When hard work doesn’t go unnoticed


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Merging two worlds with words


A new look for research records


From the lab to the market

October 2009


in vivo

Issue 08

Class of 2009 PhD students hit the ground running


he 25 PhD students of the class of 2009

get a more in-depth look at some of the re-

scientific retreat on October 1-2 to which

barely had time to let the dust settle

search lines being studied at the Institute.

all new PhD students were invited to hear

after their arrival at IRB Barcelona this fall.

It wasn’t long before the next event

in-depth presentations from the Institute’s

No soon had they unpacked their suitcases,

was due – on September 17, the first in the

group leaders and core facility heads (see

were they whisked away into the world of

new PhD student seminar series took place.

article on page 3). Then it was back to the

the International PhD Programme where

Valerie Crowley presented her work on

lab to get some work done, with a short

an agenda chock full of activities

break on October 8 for the of-

awaited them.

ficial IRB Barcelona Welcome

To kick things off, the stu-


dents gathered from September

Next up? The First IRB Bar-

7-14 for a week-long general

celona PhD Student Symposium:

introductory PhD course where

‘The Architecture of Life’, which

they learned the ins and outs of

will be held on November 2-3 at

IRB Barcelona research and ser-

Barcelona’s CosmoCaixa mu-

vices. Director Joan J Guinovart imparted his customary call-to-

Core Facility manager Marta Vilaseca (left) walks the new PhD students through the basics of mass spectrometry. Photo: IRB Barcelona

arms urging the students to take

seum. The event is a student-run affair that will bring together eight internationally renowned

advantage of all that the Institute has to of-

transcriptional regulation of Plasmodium

speakers with PhD students and other re-

fer during the next four years of their ca-

falciparum genes in erythrocyte invasion.

searchers from around the world for pre-

reers to develop their technical skills, form

Her seminar was followed by the monthly

sentations and debate about research into

networks with researchers from across and

‘cool-off session’, which provided an op-

how life is built, focusing on topics rang-

beyond the lab and do some great science.

portunity for students and postdocs to

ing from DNA, RNA and proteins, all the

Once the course had finished, students

meet, chat and relax over drinks and snacks.

way up to tissues and organisms, in nor-

split up and headed off for lab rotations to

Then it was time for the IRB Barcelona

mal and diseased states.


ecoming a PhD student is a daunting

student Amelie Stein, who has volunteered

prospect. You may not know much

to be a guide, explains that it’s not just about

about your new institute, your host lab or

the Institute but also “getting answers about

the city you have moved to. To tackle this,

what to find and where, like a flat, groceries,

IRB Barcelona has launched another timely

a nice bar or shoes, and how things usually

initiative this September, the Footsteps Pro-

work, like matriculation at the university,


student seminars and cool-off sessions.” She

The programme provides newcomers

says that guides benefit by getting to know a

with a ‘guide’ to help them along at the begin-

person in a different field and learning about

ning of their PhD studies. Guides are older

their research. “It’s also an opportunity to

PhD students from a different programme to

make a new friend.”

that of the newcomer, and give the new stu-

Clara Caminal, Academic Officer at

dents an inside perspective of IRB Barcelona,

IRB Barcelona, says that in order to ensure

including the ins and outs of every day life

a good match between guides and students,

and the who is who in the organization. PhD

next year participants in the Footsteps Pro-


Photo: Maj Britt Hansen

Following footsteps

IRB Barcelona PhD students Amelie Stein and Roland Pache work in the Structural Bioinformatics Group.

gramme will be paired on the basis of interests and hobbies. Tanya Yates

When hard work doesn’t go unnoticed tion skills to work and Photo: IRB Barcelona Minister Garmendia (left) shakes hands with Eva Novoa, one of the recipients of the 2008-2009 ”la Caixa”/IRB Barcelona International PhD Programme call. In the background, PhD students Milica Pavlovic (left) and Felipe Slebe wait their turn.


ing funding to recruit talented PhD students.

spoke on behalf of the

The new generations of young research-

students to express their

ers who are recruited each year through the

gratitude and commit-

”la Caixa”/IRB Barcelona International PhD

ment. “We assure you

Programme spend up to four years in IRB

that we will not take this

Barcelona laboratories doing work toward

scholarship for granted

their theses. The Institute has put in place all

and will work as much

the necessary resources to ensure students

as needed to answer the

receive close mentoring and have access to a

questions society asks,”

wide variety of training activities and services

said Barriga in front of a

during their doctoral stay.

crowded audience.

This year’s ”la Caixa”/IRB Barcelona

everal IRB Barcelona PhD students put

The ceremony, held on July 20 at the

International PhD Programme call attracted

aside their research duties for a few hours

CaixaForum cultural center in Barcelona,

nearly 300 applicants from around the world.

this summer to attend the certificate award

was attended by the Spanish Minister of Sci-

The PhD students who made it through the

ceremony of the 2008-2009 ”la Caixa”/IRB

ence and Innovation, Cristina Garmendia,

selection process earlier this year started to

Barcelona International PhD Programme.

the president of ”la Caixa”, Juan María Nin,

work at IRB Barcelona laboratories in Sep-

After the ten IRB Barcelona PhD stu-

and the directors and awardees of the four re-

tember. The month also saw the opening of

dents leapt on stage to collect their certifi-

search centers in Spain that were chosen by

the 2010 call, which will close in January

cate, Francisco Barriga put his communica-

the financial entity last year to receive ongo-

next year.

Mix and match at the 2009 IRB Barcelona retreat


f any of the more than 100 IRB Barcelona researchers wasn’t sure why he or she had been convened to a hillside resort to the north of Barcelona on October 1-2, IRB Barcelona Director Joan Guinovart cleared up any doubt: “We’re here to talk, we’re here to listen, we’re hear to meet and we’re here to get down to science!” The occasion? The 2009 IRB Barcelona scientific retreat. Mixing and matching (and fostering collaboration) was the order of the day. This year’s sessions were framed around current topics in biomedical research, rather than ordered by research programme, and focused on ‘Multidisciplinary Approaches to Cancer Research’, ‘Search for New Drugs’, ‘DNA and Chromatin’, ‘Protein Folding and Disease’ and ‘Signal Transduction and CellCell Communication’. Each session involved short talks by group leaders from each of the research programmes, and provided a great

IRB Barcelona researchers during one of the retreat sessions at the hillside resort.

opportunity to catch a glimpse of the multidisciplinary research going on at the Institute. The programme was rounded out by an introduction to the newly created Department of Innovation and Strategic Projects, given by Jorge Domínguez. This year’s edition also saw expanded participation. IRB Barcelona’s 28 group leaders and 6 core facility managers were joined by the newly-arrived PhD students as well as


by a postdoc from each lab. The 100+ participants from a wide range of backgrounds and with diverse scientific interests made for lively discussions and interesting exchange. And in the spirit of fostering interaction, sticking close to your chums was strictly prohibited. “If you are a biologist and you are sitting next to another biologist at dinner, you are doing it wrong,” warned Guinovart. “Sit next to a chemist!” His words did not fall on deaf ears. “I’m a chemist,” says Nuria Aiguabella, a PhD student working with Antoni Riera, “and I don’t know the first thing about biology or oncology. It was great to be able to go to the retreat and hear about the other research projects going on at the Institute. You never know when something you hear may come in handy and give you a good idea.” Sarah Sherwood

October 2009


in vivo

Issue 08

Photo: ©TV3

TV stars for a day


cientists have been using the fruit fly for biomedical research for almost a century. They know very well that these tiny animals are contributing to the discovery of genes, proteins and fundamental cell and molecular processes that work in very similar ways in humans. Now, thanks to a news report devoted to the fruit fly, broadcast this September on the Catalan TV channel TV3, the general public is also aware of the value of Drosophila melanogaster for medicine. The video, ‘Flies for medicine,’ was exclusively recorded at IRB Barcelona and featured principal investigators in the Cell and Developmental Biology Programme Jordi Casanova and Cayetano González, who managed to translate the scientific language into plain words to explain why this tiny insect is important for research in biomedicine. IRB Barcelona postdoctoral fellow Sophia Araújo, and Ainoa Olza, from the Drosophila Injection Service, also contributed to the recording by walking journalists through the process of working with the fruit fly.

González (right) and Araújo during the filming session at IRB Barcelona.

About 75% of known human disease genes have an identifiable match in the genome of fruit flies. Drosophila is being used as a genetic model to investigate several human diseases, including neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The fruit fly is also a good model to study the mechanisms underlying aging, immunity, drug addiction, diabetes and cancer. Fighting cancer with the fruit fly The potential of Drosophila in biomedical research was also the focus of the last Barcelona BioMed Conference, held on September 1416 and organized by IRB Barcelona with the support of the BBVA Foundation. ‘Modelling

Photo: ©Global Talent The research carried out in Guinovart’s lab focuses on glycogen metabolism and its dysfunctions in diabetes and Lafora disease.

Cancer in Drosophila’ brought to the Institut d’Estudis Catalans over 150 scientists from around the world to discuss the cutting-edge models of tumorigenesis in fruit flies and their use in high-throughput screenings of small molecule inhibitors that can be developed to fight human cancer.

“The fruit fly as a model system may be limited in terms of being able to directly lead to a cure for cancer, but sometimes it’s the only organism available to do preliminary experiments aimed to later develop therapies in humans,” says González, conference coorganizer. The thirty-four works presented during the conference highlighted the immense variety of studies on cancer and metastasis that are currently being performed, using Drosophila as a model system, in top-class research centres around the world. Sònia Armengou

Merging two worlds with words research projects are worthier

opinion articles, debates, expert profiles, com-

than those of their competi-

puter graphics, photo galleries and blogs.

tors,” says IRB Barcelona Di-

An initiative of the Catalan Foundation

rector Joan J Guinovart. These

for Research and Innovation (FCRI), the

general thoughts and many

channel presents the latest research break-



throughs in an easy-to-understand way to

world of science were recently



help the general audience to quickly grasp the

captured in a profile interview

relevance of these discoveries and get a global

filmed at IRB Barcelona.

picture of the science carried out in Spain.

The video was released in

‘Global Talent’, led by journalist Xavi-

esearchers are always being evalu-

September on ‘Global Talent,’ a new online

er Pujol, is supported by the Department

ated. They have to constantly jus-

communications platform that aims to con-

of Innovation, Universities and Business

tify their work, strive to defend their ideas,

nect the world of science with society through

of the Catalan government. More info at

and convince funders that their proposals for

the publication of research news, interviews,


October 2009


in vivo

Issue 08

Science and politics hook up

A new look for research records companies hosted at the PCB, and bring homework back to the Parliament to promote new joint initiatives for the upcoming years. Two hours of presen-

The delegation of parliamentarians included representative deputees from all the Catalan parties. Photo: © R. Boadella


tations were followed by a tour of the PCB, which started with a guided visit

oved by an interest to get a closer

of the IRB Barcelona laboratory led by prin-

look at the world of research, a del-

cipal investigator Antonio Zorzano.

egation of politicians from the Catalan Par-

The visit was part of the ‘Enterprises-

liament put aside its regular duties on Sep-

Parlamientarians’ programme, an initiative

tember 16 to spend one day at the Barcelona

of the Catalan government and the private

Science Park (PCB). The reason? To learn

foundation FemCAT which aims to promote

about the latest scientific activities carried

the dialog between Catalan deputies and re-

out by research centers and biotechnology

search centers in Catalonia.

Buying time with the purchasing platform Photo: A. Alsina


he month of October has brought simplicity and speed into purchasing rou-

tines at IRB Barcelona. After five months of tests and tweaking, the Institute has put in place a new online platform with the latest functionalities to make the purchasing process much easier and quicker for researchers. “The system allows you to place orders in a matter of seconds,” says Yolanda Olmos, head of the IRB Barcelona purchasing department. Designed by the consulting firm everis, some of the new features of the purchasing portal include immediate tracking of orders,

(From left to right) Noèlia Camacho, Cristina Lacasa and Nerea Peiró during the purchasing training course held in September.

budget control, best price available for each of the purchases, automatic invoice valida-

At first it will be available to a few users and

tion and approval, purchasing history reports

gradually opened to the whole community

and the possibility to run queries about past

after the initial tests are validated.

orders. The system has been tested in both

The purchasing department at IRB Barce-

Windows and Mac platforms and will be up

lona processes nearly 10,000 annual purchas-

and running the second week of October.

es, a number that keeps growing every year.



he primary records of research at IRB Barcelona have had a facelift in October. The Institute has released an official edition of laboratory notebooks to enhance the process of documenting experiments. “The notebooks are specially designed to improve good laboratory practices and safeguard the intellectual property generated from the Institute’s research results,” says Jorge Domínguez, head of the Innovation and Strategic Projects Department. The new edition of the laboratory notebooks includes a revised set of practical guidelines that all researchers are required to follow in order to ensure good record-keeping and facilitate invention disclosures. Among these are the possibility of having a third party signature when the experiments can lead to patent applications, and the implementation of a new notebook tracking and bookkeeping system. The notebooks will be first tested with a limited number of users and will progressively be distributed to the whole IRB Barcelona community, once the initial feedback is collected.

October 2009


in vivo

Issue 08

Manuel Palacín.

Principal Investigator, Group on Amino Acid

Transporters: Biochemistry, Physiopathology, Genetics and Structural Biology

Photo: S. Armengou


“The thrill of exploring is mostly fueled by curiosity” ANNA ALSINA

Where did all the birds go?


iochemist and molecular biologist Manuel Palacín tends not to like common things. He has been studying rare diseases for more than two decades now. His breakthrough work on amino acid transporters and their role in hereditary diseases led him to win the Smithkline Beecham Biomedicine Prize in 2004, a prestigious award for research excellence. - What made you go for rare diseases? “Actually, it was a coincidence. We were trying to find new insights into the nature of amino acid transporters, some of which are fundamental for life, and we ended up finding connections to hereditary diseases such as cystinuria, and also to much more rare disorders like lysinuric protein intolerance [LPI].” - What makes this disease so rare? “There are only over 200 known cases of LPI in first world countries. The highest rates of prevalence are in Finland, a valley area in Italy, and a small island in Japan. In fact, the disease was originally discovered in Finland in the 60s, and today the country has one of the highest frequency rates of some rare inherited diseases.” - Why? “It’s a typical effect of genetic colonization. When the Finnish conquered the north of the country centuries ago, they started reproducing exclusively among themselves. The genetic risk obviously became much higher due to this reproductive exclusivity. LPI patients used to be in mental hospitals,

A White Wagtail bird in the Filipines area at the Delta del Llobregat’s reserve. Photo: M. Palacín

Birds never go unnoticed for Palacín, not even in a crowded city like Barcelona. “People may not know it, but in this area where we work there are more than twenty different bird species during the year,” he says. Palacín’s passion for photographing birds has followed him to remote countries such as Uganda, Tanzania or Kenya, but also to much more convenient places like the outskirts of Barcelona. “The Delta del Llobregat nature reserve has a very rich variety of birds that would seem impossible to find near a city.” He’s concerned about the birds’ habitat in one of the areas there though. “The Filipines wetlands have completely dried out since they closed the area and built a wall to prevent the water channel from overflowing. The birds are pretty much all gone and the soil is completely cracked—it’s uninhabitable.” He says a solution is needed to stop further soil erosion and encourages the local authorities to weigh the possibility of finding a way to channel the water that gets dumped back into the sea at the El Prat desalination plant and redirect it to the dry wetlands.


but today, thanks to the advances in research and treatments, that has become the exception. Physicians are not accustomed to treating this condition. Dealing with rare diseases is never easy.” - What makes you keep your patience when things don’t work as planned? “The thrill of exploring is mostly fueled by curiosity. When something doesn’t work, you have to step back and realize that you need to swallow your ego and focus your attention back into the thrill of resolving something nobody has ever done before. It’s the only way to move forward and get to that breakthrough you’re pursuing.” - Is your research moved by intuition sometimes? “I think all scientists have had a hunch at least once in their life. I’ll always remember that afternoon in my office when I realized rBAT was going to be one of the genes involved in cystinuria. There were no clues back then to be certain it would be, but I just knew it.” - How do you explain that? “Being a scientist is sometimes like being a detective. When you reach a point where you have a series of unconnected pieces of information that apparently don’t fit together, that’s usually when you get a hunch. And once you have that hunch, you know you have to pursue it. There’s no turning back.” - Is that stubbornness or a natural need to get answers? “It think it’s all about what Cesare Pavese said once: Surprise is the motive behind all scientific discoveries.”

October 2009


in vivo

Issue 08



New face on Board of Trustees The IRB Barcelona Board of Trustees had a new addition right before the summer vacation. Dr Carles Miquel Collell, coordinator of the Research and Innovation Programme on Health Sciences of the Catalan Government, was appointed as new representative for the Department of Health. He will be responsible, along with the other Board members, for approving the operating funds and overseeing the Institute’s activities and annual research goals.

Research tutors for a summer Several principal investigators at IRB Barcelona had additional help this summer. Ten university students spent their vacation days doing research work in IRB Barcelona laboratories and completed projects on cell and developmental biology, molecular medicine, chemistry, and structural and computational biology. Their efforts were part of ‘Spend the Summer at the Park’, an initiative run by the PCB that this year counted with a total of 40 participants.

A new mice database The Mouse Mutant Core Facility has launched a new database of genetically modified mice lines currently being held at IRB Barcelona. The database, accessible through the Institute’s intranet, is maintained and regularly updated by the core facility.

From the lab to the market Learning how ideas develop into the commercialization of new drugs


he creative designer who produced Madrid’s Olympic dream slogan ‘Tengo una corazonada’ (I have a hunch) explained in an interview that the idea came to him on a sleepless night. He wanted to express a collective sentiment with which people could identify– not an easy thing to do. The decision to host the games in Rio may have broken the designer’s heart but the slogan has been a hit. In fact, publicists say that in this complex world it’s increasingly difficult to sell an idea and to get it to reach society. This task is doubly difficult in the case of researchers; in addition to orienting their research toward a field of market interest, they have to attract industry and ensure that these results are transformed into a specific application. There is a long distance to cover from the initial idea that comes out of a lab to the final product reaching the consumer. Many researchers are in unchartered waters during this process. To cover this gap, the Barcelona Science Park (PCB) and the ‘Canceropôle de Tolouse’ jointly launched the initiative ‘1st Summer School on Medicines’ (SSM1). “The initial idea arose from society during the FranceSpain Forum”, explains Jordi Quintana, director of Science Policy at the PCB and of the SSM1 Scientific and Organizing Committee. “The goal is to inform PhD students and postdoctoral fellows about the different aspects of the process undertaken by pharmaceutical and biotech sectors to convert an idea into a drug and to strengthen concepts of the fields in which they work and their application to drug discovery”. The scientific programme of the course, held in September, included visits to renowned pharmaceutical companies and research centers in Barcelona and Toulouse and involved about 40 university lecturers from several European countries. The course was attended by 23 students, including 14 na-


tionalities. Among these was Edgar, a young physician from Venezuela who, at only 26 years of age, has already worked in primary health care centers and in hospital emergency departments. He describes the most interesting aspect of the course as being “finding out how researchers work, because there is an incredible gap between the fields of research and clinical practice. Daniel Blasi, another course student, says that the experience has been in line with his work at the ChemBioBank project, which has allowed him to gain further insight into hit discovery. “The conclusion you draw from the SSM1 course is that the risks assumed by R+D companies are getting higher while the success rate is decreasing. There’s a need to diversify efforts, to collaborate and establish new avenues to obtain new drugs, and to resort to repurposing in order to reduce risks and costs”. Nina, a German PhD student at IRB Barcelona, was impressed by the structure of the course and appreciated the opportunity to discover how things work in a company. “I’ve been in Barcelona for some time but I didn’t know that the PCB had a Bioincubator that promotes the set up of technology-based spin-offs. This is a really good initiative. A large part of researchers perform highly specialized tasks, and working in a small enterprise of this kind allows you to diversify your work and to learn new things”. The second SSM course will be held in Toulouse (France) next year. If you missed the last course, sign up now for the next one! Carme Pérez, PCB

For more information please contact Jordi Quintana (

October 2009


in vivo

Issue 08



... in celebration of creativity, science and art


ifferentiating mouse neuroblastoma cells or a work of art? It may depend on how (or even where) you look at it - whether under a microscope in the lab or on the wall of an art museum. Our guess is that it could be both. This image forms part of an exhibition called ‘Neuronal Landscapes’, curated by the ”la Caixa” Foundation Obra Social, which showcases images from neuroscience research and illustrates the development of observation techniques since the time of Ramon y Cajal. A selection of works from this exhibition will be on display at IRB Barcelona as part of the upcoming Barcelona BioMed Forum on Creativity, Science and Art, to be held on November 11, 2009. The formal exhibition will be accompanied by artwork from members of our own scientific community, giving our researchers and other collaborators a chance to show a different side to their creativity. This, combined with an exceptional programme of lectures and discussions by a distinguished international panel of scientists and artists will set the stage for a notto-be-missed event... in celebration of creativity, science and art. To register, visit biomed/scienceandart

Postdoctoral fellow Florencia Tevy (Argentina, 1978) has spent quite a lot of time in the fly room since she started to work at IRB Barcelona in September. A geneticist by background, she’s working hand in hand with researchers at both Joan J Guinovart and Marco Milan’s laboratories to create a Drosophila model for Lafora disease from scratch. Florencia, who has worked on embryonic fruit fly models in the past, really likes the challenge of having switched to adult models. She’s had no problems adapting to Barcelona so far, and enjoys spending part of her free time in the Barceloneta district, where she says she tends to have funny language misunderstandings because of her Argentine accent.

Marta Sevillano (Spain, 1983) started to work in the IRB Barcelona Colorectal Cancer Laboratory in August, while many were enjoying their summer vacation. A hard worker by nature, she accepted her new position moved by her curiosity to learn the hidden aspects of a disease that causes 655,000 deaths worldwide per year. Marta has been extremely busy combining her healthcare biology studies with her new duties as a lab technician, but she says it’s definitely worth it because she’s learning many new biology techniques that she didn’t know about.

Cristina Méndez (Spain, 1984) is the first person you see when you enter the IRB Barcelona administration offices. She joined the team in July as the new Human Resources assistant to give support to a department that is faced with a non-stop growing number of hirings as well as to provide assistance to the Institute’s core facilities. Her main duties include helping give newcomers a smooth start, processing entry forms and access cards, tracking vacation days, administering restaurant tickets for employees, delivering employee check stubs, and helping the core facilities with travel arrangements and event organization tasks. Cristina holds a degree in tourism and a Masters in event organization.

ON THE MOVE Xavier Franch (Spain, 1974) will be leaving IRB Barcelona at the end of the year to take up a position as senior scientist at the Institute for Evolutionary Biology (IBE), after having successfully obtained a government position by the Spanish National Research Council. He looks forward to the challenge of running his own lab for the first time, which by the way will have views of the Mediterranean. An expert in developmental biology and Drosophila, he will soon be combining his expertise in fruit fly models with a new promising insect for the study of evolutionary biology: the Tribolium flour beetle.

Published by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine.  Office of Communications & External Relations. Barcelona Science Park. Baldiri Reixac, 10. 08028 Barcelona, Spain. Editor: Anna Alsina. Associate Editor: Sarah Sherwood. Contributors: Sònia Armengou, Tanya Yates, Carme Pérez. Design: Aymerich Comunicació. Printing: Puresa. Graphic Production: La Trama. Legal deposit: B-20012-2009. © IRB Barcelona

IRB Barcelona - InVivo 8 - October 2009  

This is an online publication of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona). Please, visit our webpage at www.irbbarcelona.or...

IRB Barcelona - InVivo 8 - October 2009  

This is an online publication of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona). Please, visit our webpage at www.irbbarcelona.or...