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in vivo October 2013 | Issue 24

NEWSLETTER OF THE INSTITUTE FOR RESEARCH IN BIOMEDICINE

New Group Leader strengthens oncology research at IRB Barcelona Cancer research is one of the pillars of the cutting-edge research conducted at IRB Barcelona. At the beginning of September, a new group joined in to fortify the Oncology Programme. The name of its leader is Salvador Aznar Benitah, he is an ICREA Research Professor, and he brings with him a group of seven scientists, from six countries. They will focus on the stem cells of stratified tissues, such as skin and mucosa, in health and disease. “Our primary goal is to find a way to help skin and mouth cancer patients,” declares Salvador upon arrival at the Institute. He has been studying stem cells for more than eight years, after starting to work with them as a postdoc in London. “I had the feeling that these cells could answer many of the questions that were playing around in my head,” he tells In vivo. Meet the new Group Leader and his group on page 2.

Salvador Aznar Benitah, born in Montreal, leads the new Stem Cells and Cancer Group. “I accepted one of the best scientific offers I received,” he says. (Photo S. Cogolludo/El Mundo)

The Business Advisory Board meets for the first time

Two awards for Eduard Batlle

To reinforce IRB Barcelona’s strategy to trans-

Carlos Plata, Chief Scientific Officer of Esteve, speaks with Maria Freire, BAB chair, before the first meeting of the new board. (Photo L.T. Barone)

p4

Drosophila Congress in Barcelona

IRB Barcelona Group Leader and ICREA

form research results into real value for industry and

Research Professor Eduard Batlle has been

society. This is the goal of the Business Advisory

awarded an Advanced Grant

Board, the 10-member body that will help the Insti-

from the European Re-

tute to detect business opportunities. The new board

search Council and the

met for the first time in October. In Vivo interviewed

Josef Steiner Prize.

its chair, Maria Freire, also president of the NIH

Read more on this

Foundation in the US. Read what she says on page 3.

story on page 4.

p6

3rd PhD Student Symposium Final countdown

p7

Ivan Burkov Someone with ideas

p8

Spotlight Bahar goes “crazy” again


Skin stem cell research has a promising future at IRB Barcelona Meet new Group Leader Salvador Aznar Benitah “This was one of the best scientific offers I received. It was impossible to say no,” says Salvador. (Photo: J. Lanuza) Top right, mouse epidermal stem cells (Aznar Benitah Lab).

B

orn in Montreal, Canada, Salvador has always lived in an international environment, his mother coming

from the community of Sephardic Jews in

Tangiers and his father from Malaga. When democracy was restored in Spain, his parents decided to move to Madrid, where he studied until university. “In the 1990s, you couldn’t do a biochemistry degree in Spain, so I opted for chemistry” he recalls. “Somehow, it just wasn’t enough for me. So I moved back to Canada, for a biochemistry degree at McGill and I loved it.”

“S

tem cells of stratified tissues, such as

on epigenetics. We try to understand how chro-

skin and mucosa, in health and dis-

matin reorganises itself every time a stem cells is

ease are the focus of our research,”

active, how the cell communicates with its mi-

explains ICREA professor and new Group

cro- and macro-environment, and how it reacts

Leader Salvador Aznar Benitah, who, together

to different situations,” says the researcher.

with his group, joined IRB Barcelona’s Oncology Programme in September.

A second line of research focuses on something apparently unrelated to cancer: circadian

Before even speaking about specific research,

rhythm in cells. How do stem cells know what

Salvador emphasises that behind his scientific

to do and how do they communicate with the

endeavours are cancer patients. “Squamous cell

rest of the organism? Salvador’s group discov-

carcinoma of the skin and mouth are the second

ered that there are genes regulating the circadian

and fifth most common types of cancer in indus-

rhythm of cells and also that stem cell behaviour

trialised countries,” he recalls. “Mouth cancer is

is related to this. “Changes in light, temperature

very aggressive, and its incidence is on the rise.

or metabolism alter this rhythm and this is the

We want to understand the mechanism by which

very elegant way cells synchronise themselves.

it metastasises so quickly. Also skin cancer is af-

Cells do not divide or differentiate at any time of

fecting more and more people. Our primary goal

the day. They follow what their circadian genes

is to find a way to help these patients.”

indicate. These genes allow a systemic commu-

Aznar Benitah’s research has a threefold ap-

nication of cells in distant tissues, such as the in-

proach. One step is to identify where exactly hu-

testine, the brain, or liver.” If cells can’t follow

man skin stem cells are located, something that

their circadian rhythm, they age quickly because

is already known in mice. A related project is

they divide or differentiate when they shouldn’t

to study how these stem cells define and place

and accumulate errors.

themselves in the right position after the devel-

Salvador’s lab remaining scientific ener-

opment. “This part of our research is focussed

gies are dedicated to metastasis. “Just as Eduard Batlle’s group identified what

When faced with the decision on where

triggers metastasis in colon cancer

to do his PhD, Madrid was once again his

cells, we would like to do the same

against-the-tide choice. “I knew that the

with skin cancer. We want to know

field I was interested in, molecular oncol-

how a skin cell forgets its origin

ogy, was very good there. And indeed it

and, like Hannibal, attacks a dif-

definitely was the right choice.”

ferent tissue, adapts and survives

It was in London, where he moved for

there,” he explains.

his postdoc, that Salvador discovered the

All three research lines come

world of stem cells. “I had the feeling that

together, Salvador believes. “I’m

those cells could answer many of the questions that were playing around in my head,” he says. In 2007, before his postdoc was even over, Salvador received an offer to become group leader at the CRG. “When you begin to become frustrated with the ideas that you would like to explore and have no time for, you look for a way to become independent.” When time for a new change after CRG

.

convinced epigenetics plays a funThe eight members of the new “Stem Cells and Cancer” group come from Canada, Germany, Austria, Italy, Portugal, Bulgaria and Spain. In the middle back, Salvador Aznar Benitah. (Photo: J. Lanuza)

damental role in the metastatic process,” he summarises. (ltb)

SCIENCE BITES

Skin around the clock

cells perceive the time of the day and how

Researchers led by Salvador Aznar

they adapt their activity accordingly. Dur-

Benitah have discovered the mechanism by

ing the day, stem cells protect themselves,

which our skin recovers from daily harmful

for example, from UV light, while at night

scientifically competitive offer in a stimulat-

attacks. Published in the journal Cell Stem

they produce new cells to replace the ones

ing environment,” he says. “This is why I

Cell and performed while the team was at

that are damaged or lost during the day.

accepted.” (ltb)

the CRG, the study describes how skin stem

arrived, IRB Barcelona stepped in. “I got very interesting offers from Cambridge and Berlin. But this one was objectively a highly

p2 p2

.

in in vivo vivo

October October 2013 2013 || Issue Issue 24 24

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Business Advisory Board boosts innovation at IRB Barcelona

O

ne of the goals of a research institute is to translate the value of basic research into something with an impact on society. Maria Freire, President of the Foundation for the National Institutes of

WHAT IS THE BAB?

Health in the United States has dedicated her life “to finding the right balance

IRB Barcelona has always believed in seeking advice from oth-

between the advancement of science and that of society,” she tells In Vivo.

ers who do their job well. The External Advisory Board, for ex-

Freire was in Barcelona in October for the first meeting of IRB Barcelona’s

ample, helps shape and evaluate IRB Barcelona's institutional

Business Advisory Board, which she chairs. During her visit, she found herself

and scientific strategy. The new Business Advisory Board will do

“impressed” with the quality of the research performed at the Institute: “IRB Barcelona is clearly maturing and is now ready to take its next steps. This means focussing on ways to convert its value-added research into products that can make their way to the market, and help people to live better and prevent disease,” she explains. “Not all researchers will stay in academia. We also have the duty to give them opportunities outside of research through these types of translational activities.”

the same, this time focussing on the best strategies to transfer our research results into real value for industry and society. The Board’s 10 members include representatives from pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis, Esteve, Ferrer and Biokit, from venture capital enterprises such as Ysios Capital and KLS Partners, and agents, consultants and academics specialised in promoting agreements between the public and private sectors and in detecting business opportunities. Check out the full list

IRB Barcelona scientists know they already have an important ally in the

of members on the web.

Innovation Department, who support them when they need advice on how to make the best of their research. The BAB reinforces the importance of the Institute’s investment in technology transfer. “We know the research is of great quality, so the role of the BAB is to help scientists find the best way to make it useful for society,” explains the BAB

CancerTec: Keeping a good thing going

chair. “Sometimes the best way is to publish and bring new knowledge into the public arena. Sometimes inventions also need a patent to guarantee that discoveries can be commercialised and provide incentive for pharmaceutiBAB members Maria Freire and Pau Bruguera listen to IRB Barcelona scientist Elena Sancho during the first BAB meeting in October. (Photo L.T. Barone)

cal companies to develop drugs. It depends.”

❝ Our goal is to achieve the

stitute and had the opportunity to meet Group Leaders

best balance between the advancement of science and that of society❞ Maria Freire, Chair of the BAB

During the meeting, the BAB members visited the In-

with promising research results. “The BAB provided their perspective, for example: ‘it’s too early for this’, or ‘maybe you should think about starting a public/private partnership’.” We are basically

CancerTec, IRB Barcelona’s programme that aims to identify and develop basic research with potential to translate into commercial applications, is gaining solid ground. Its first call, in 2012, launched four projects aimed at developing new diagnostic tools and innovative and efficient therapies for cancer. This first round was met with such success

trying to act as a guide for researchers and the Institute,” she adds.

that the ”la Caixa” Foundation, who sponsor

“I was trained as a scientist, but I wanted to apply my knowl-

the programme, have continued their support

edge in ways that impact people’s lives directly. At the time, nobody knew how to do tech transfer. We

to fund a second call, which was launched in

were in a jungle,” she recalls. “Now we have a better understanding of how to translate basic research

June 2013.

.

into real-world applications and how to train others to do so for the benefit of people.” (ltb)

On the road to entrepreneurship

Under this new call, funding has been made available to allow three of these projects to progress to the next stages, and to incorporate a further three into the programme. The new projects will focus on validat-

Scientists curious about business start-ups, but

through sessions on how to identify a business

at a loss about where to begin, had their chance to

opportunity, how to analyse a business model and

get some great tips at the workshop, “The start-up

its financial viability, and how to create a good

journey: from idea to financing through to the

entrepreneurial team.

business opportunity,” organised on 12 September

“A quality course led by a knowledgeable,

by the Innovation Department in collaboration

fully approachable teacher,” says postdoc Chris

with the Research and Academic Department.

Sinadinos. “Great food for thought. It really

Mathieu Carenzo, Director of IESE’s Center for Entrepreneurship, led the 40 participants

.

opened my eyes to the possibilities that are out there.” (ss)

ing novel hit compounds as inhibitors of the herpes virus with a view to producing antiviral drugs, identifying kinase inhibitors involved in mitosis with possible implications for cancer treatment, and the study of a new mechanism

.

to improve heterologous expression systems, with potential application in the biotech industry. (ss)

in in vivo vivo

October October 2013 2013 || Issue Issue 24 24

p3 p3


Barcelona hosts the European Drosophila Research Conference

T

hhe biggest European event focussed on basic bio-

would be so much quicker. So young people have no excuse not to come out

medical research that uses the fruit fly, Drosophila

with good results for their theses,” he jokes. Hoffman does not like to give

melanogaster, as a model system took place in Bar-

advice to young researchers. “When I was young, I did not follow advice.

celona on 16-19 October. Nobel Laureate Jules Hoffmann, recognised for

Young people have to follow their inspiration. Yes, it’s very important to

his research on the activation of innate immunity, a key step that allows

have a good question to start with and be curious about it. Then, of course,

scientists to develop new methods to fight diseases, opened the conference

one has to follow the technical advances that allow you to answer the ques-

with a lively lecture on “Innate immunity: from fly to humans.” “Prog-

tion. And you should not be too focussed on one field, you should see the

ress in life sciences from 1950 until today has been more important than

big picture. To be successful, I also suggest you have nice family lives and

between 10,000BC and 1950!,” he tells In Vivo. “The ancient heroes were

happy human relations,

asking the right questions, but thanks to progress in physics and chemistry,

and remain culturally

the techniques which are available today allow us to do things which were

interested.” The confer-

❝ One of the secrets to

being a good scientist is to have a happy family and a culture-rich life❞ Jules Hoffmann, Nobel Prize winner 2011

unimaginable 50 years ago. At the time

ence, organised by IRB

I did my PhD, we had no biochemis-

Barcelona, the Univer-

try, molecular biology or molecular

sity of Barcelona, and

genetics. When we were identifying

the CSIC, saw the par-

the Toll protein in the 1980s, we had to

ticipation of more than

prick 100,000 flies one by one! Today it

700 scientists. (ltb)

.

Jules Hoffmann delivered the opening lecture at the EDRC 2013 in Barcelona earlier this month. (Photo L.T. Barone)

Bioimage specialists in Barcelona assemble the tools of the future Julien Colombelli (second from right) and Lidia Bardia (right) welcome guests to EuBIAS 2013. (Photo L.T. Barone)

W

hat is the best technology available to collect and interpret my images and

answer my scientific question? Biologists ask themselves this question all the time. EuroBiomaging is a pan-European research infrastructure project that is setting up ‘nodes’ that will provide the tools and the expertise

to help scientists find the most efficient so-

as well as to learn scientific programming

lutions across Europe. “IRB Barcelona will

through the international ‘BioImage analysis

play an important role in this European net-

course: BIAS2.’

work,” notes Julien Colombelli, Advanced Digital Microscopy Core Facility Manager.

“The most challenging part of the meeting was the so-called Taggathon,” concludes

Within this project, the aim of the Eu-

Colombelli. “Software developers and facil-

ropean BioImage Analysis Symposium (Eu-

ity analysts gathered to generate a commu-

BIAS) held at IRB Barcelona on 7-12 Octo-

nity portal that integrates documentation

ber was to join together the best specialists to

and knowledge on open and commercial

discuss the last advancements in open soft-

bioimage analysis software and relates these

ware and algorithm development, and to let

resources (by ‘tagging’ ) to make them more

users, bioimage analysts and developers meet,

accessible to the community.” (ltb)

.

Colon cancer research talent rewarded by Europe

O

ver the past month, ICREA Research Professor Eduard Batlle has seen his ambition and determination generously rewarded. The European Research Council (ERC) and the Swiss Josef Steiner Cancer Research Foundation have both granted him funding for two different frontier projects. The evaluators of the EU presented him with an Advanced Grant of 2.5 million

euros, the most competitive award in Europe for consolidated researchers, to investigate cancer stem cells in colorectal tumours. The Josef Steiner Prize Committee identified Batlle as one of the leading researchers in cancer. This prestigious prize will be used to investigate mechanisms leading to metastasis. “In the lab we are overjoyed. Both pieces of news are extraordinary and highlight that we are contemplating long-term cutting edge research projects,” says Eduard. This 42-year-old scientist from Barcelona heads the

.

Colorectal Cancer Lab, which comprises 16 members. His lab studies the initiation of colorectal cancer and its progression

in vivo Group Leader Eduard Batlle. p4

(Photo G.Battista/M. Minocri)

from early stages to the formation of aggressive tumours and metastasis. The ultimate goal is to obtain information that

October 2013 |may Issue 24 the design of new therapeutic and diagnostic tools.” (sa) allow


Mfn2 and dBigH1: how vital proteins are!

Malagasy sea sponge hides anticancer drug

M

itofusin 2 (Mfn2) is a mitochondrial

in Drosophila during the first round of cell divi-

protein whose dysfunction is associ-

sions. Named dBigH1, this protein is a variant

ated with the development of diabe-

of Histone 1, and it keeps the embryo genome

tes and metabolic syndrome in humans. But that

inactive during the first hours of development.

L

is not the end of the story. Antonio Zorzano’s

After removing the protein from the embryos,

for Aquaman,’ some would say.

group, which specialises in Mfn2 research, has just

the scientists found that none survived. Although

Well, it seems that it is indeed from the

published a study in EMBO Journal revealing that

this protein is present in the first embryonic

seas that the molecule with the potential to ex-

this protein plays a crucial role in correctly mea-

stages of humans and mice, nothing is known

terminate these cancers comes. Homophymia

suring cell stress levels and also ensures that the

about its role there. The discovery of dBigH1 in

lamellosa, a sponge thriving off the coasts of

pathways of cell repair or cell death are effective.

Drosophila, published in September in Develop-

Madagascar, contains a substance called pipe-

Mfn2 develops these functions through its relation

mental Cell, has now allowed the scientists to

colidepsin A. It was first isolated in 2008 by

with the endoplasmic reticulum, the cell organelle

rapidly and efficiently study its activity during

Pharmamar, a Madrid-based company dedi-

equipped with a “sensor” that checks whether the

such early stages. “If this same function is con-

cated to developing marine-derived drugs.

cell environment is right. If not, Mfn2 triggers cell

served in humans, its alteration could be related

The Combinatorial Chemistry group

repair or cell death signaling pathways. However,

to gestational disorders or early miscarriage,” say

led by Fernando Albericio has been able to

when the scientists removed Mfn2 from the cell

researchers Salvador Pérez-Montero and Albert

reproduce this elusive molecule in the lab.

under conditions of cell stress, the endoplasmic

Carbonell. But there is more. The scientists point

After obtaining the patent, the procedure

reticulum responded by over-activating the repair

out that dBigH1 may also be linked to male and

was published in Nature Communications

pathways. By doing so, this organelle contradic-

female fertility. Preliminary results indicate that

in September.

torily functioned worse, reducing the capacity of

the gene regulates sperm production in males

“Only 1 out of 10,000 promising mol-

cells to overcome the stress insult and promot-

and oocyte production in females. “The removal

ecules gets to become a drug. We have a lot of

ing less apoptosis. “We have shown that Mfn2 is

of this gene totally disrupts this process,” they

hope that pipecolidepsin A is one of them,”

important for cell viability, and its new role has

explain. Could dBigH1 be a good candidate to

says Albericio. Researcher Marta Pelay, first

implications for numerous conditions, such as

tackle infertility? It is too early to say, but if the

author of the article, has been able to produce

neurodegeneration, cancer, and cardiovascular

results are confirmed, it could be a good starting

four mg of this compound in the laboratory,

disease, in addition to diabetes,” says postdoc-

point to find out. (sa)

but 100 mg are needed for extensive biologi-

toral researcher Juan Pablo

.

Muñoz, first author of the

ung, prostate, colon, pancreas, ovarian, sarcoma, leukemia, liver, kidney, stomach and breast. Dealing with

these eleven types of cancers ‘looks like a job

cal assays. “The chemical Pipecolidepsin A is tricky,

study.

especially its centre,” she explains. This molecule belongs to the family of ‘head-to-side

Crucial in development

chain’ cyclodepsipeptides. It is a peptide, a

Ferran Azorín’s Chromatin

Structure

small protein comprising 11 amino acids and

and

one acid, arranged in the shape of a ‘six’ with

Function Lab has identi-

a central core containing a series of highly

fied an essential protein for embryonic viability

sensitive boundaries and including seven unFrom left to right, researchers Salvador Pérez-Montero, Albert Carbonell and Group Leader Ferran Azorín. (Photo S. Armengou)

The weaken-and-kill approach

T

wo of the common problems in cancer

lished in September in the journal EMBO Mo-

treatment are low specificity and limited

lecular Medicine and show that the p38 MAPK

effectiveness of the anti-cancer drugs

inhibitor triggers the accumulation of toxic mol-

due to resistance. Researchers from the Signalling

ecules in the cytoplasm of cancer cells, which then

and Cell Cycle Lab led by ICREA Research and

become more sensitive to cell death induced by

BBVA Foundation Oncology Professor Ángel

cisplatin. The combined therapy was validated

Rodríguez Nebreda have possibly found a way

in a mouse model of breast cancer. This new ap-

to overcome these obstacles by combining two

proach might be useful to treat other types of tu-

drugs, an inhibitor of protein p38 MAPK and the

mours. (jl)

anti-cancer drug cisplatin. The results were pub-

.

natural amino acids.”

.

The researchers will know later on this year if their effort pays off .

October 2013 | Issue 24 p5 inMarta vivo Pelay is the first author of the article in Nature Communications. (Photo J. Lanuza)


IRB Barcelona welcomes its new young scientists

T

he first step in the lives of the new PhD students who just joined IRB Barcelona

is the traditional introductory course for newcomers, which was held this year on 6-10 September. Among these young new members, Simone Pieretti and Jessica Vitos will meet the more than 220 participants who will take part in the 3rd PhD Student Symposium on 14 and 15 November at the La Pedrera, in Barcelona. (Photo L.T. Barone)

some are funded by ”la Caixa” Foundation and by IRB Barcelona. They will be part of the well-integrated community of more than

Countdown for the 3rd PhD Student Symposium

I

t’s a tradition at IRB Barcelona. The IRB

speakers. “We discussed altogether to decide

Barcelona PhD Student Symposium, to

130 PhD students currently working in the labs. “The quality of science at the Institute, the projects we were proposed, and the city itself were the key factors that convinced all of us to choose this as the place to spend our coming years,” declares Salvador Guardiola, a rookie in Ernest Giralt’s lab.

who they were going to be,” say the students.

One of the first activities they will have

be held 14 and 15 November, is now in

“They all fit the profile we were look-

to face in their new home is the so-called ‘lab

its third edition. The biannual meeting is an

ing for: good communicators, who can relate

rotation,’ where they will spend two weeks

occasion for top scientists to meet and discuss

well with PhD students, and are open to in-

cutting-edge and interdisciplinary themes and

in a laboratory covering a field they are not

formal discussions. And they are the best in

at the same time provides an opportunity for

experts in. The aim of this initiative is to

their fields,” declares Jessica. Invited speak-

IRB Barcelona’s PhD students to organise a

promote interactions and allow students to

ers include Coleen T. Murphy (Princeton),

scientific congress right from the start.

Sara Annika Wickström (Max-Planck Insti-

discover the science carried out at the Insti-

Simone Pieretti and Jessica Vitos are

tute), and Carlos López Botín (University of

among the 13 students on the Organis-

Oviedo), experts on ageing, or John Hardy

ing Committee. “We began by selecting the

(UCL), a Parkinson’s disease specialist, and

scientific theme of the Symposium,” they

Tuomas Knowles (Cambridge), who studies

explain. “The development and aging of or-

abnormal forms of proteins at the root of Al-

ganisms, from both the chemical and the

zheimer’s disease.

tute. Otherwise they will be busy attending seminars and workshops during the day, and playing football, hiking or sharing a drink at Cool-off sessions during their free time. Meanwhile, interviews for the IRB Barcelona International Postdoctoral Programme

biological viewpoints seemed perfect topics.

“Organising this event has meant do-

fellowships also took place. Twenty of a total

Fashionable, interdisciplinary, and related to

ing science in a different way,” says Simone.

of 73 applicants from 25 nationalities were

many important diseases and to the improve-

“You see more things, and I realised I liked

interviewed. The eight selected candidates

ment of the quality of life, something that is

this aspect of the work. It’s an extremely

from five countries won’t make it in time for

becoming more significant every day.”

valuable experience to take with me for my

the 2013 Welcome Party, on 24 October. No

future career.” .(ltb)

worries. They will celebrate next year. (jl)

The next step was the selection of the

.

.

IN BRIEF Alumna awarded Eva Maria Novoa,

ICREA’s new recruits Group Leaders

On the shoulders of giants The Inter-

who completed her PhD thesis in Lluís Ribas’ lab

Xavier Salvatella (Molecular Biophysics Lab)

national Union of Biochemistry and Molecular

earlier this year, has been awarded the prestigious

and Roger Gomis (Growth Control and Metas-

Biology (IUBMB) awarded Nobel Laureate Jules

Fisher Scientific Prize by the Spanish Society of

tasis Lab) are new ICREA Research Professors.

Hoffmann its Jubilee lecture medal. Carrying the

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM).

ICREA, the Catalan Institution for Research and

inscription “Standing on the shoulders of a giant,

The celebration took place in Madrid on 5 Sep-

Advanced Studies, has the goal to recruit top sci-

he has seen farther,” inspired by Isaac Newton,

tember. Eva, currently at MIT, gave a talk on

entists for the Catalan R&D system and is sup-

the medal honours exceptional scientists in the

tRNA modifications role in DNA structure.

ported by the Catalan government.

field of biochemistry and molecular biology.

p6 p6

in vivo in vivo

October 2013 October 2013

| Issue 24 | Issue 24


EXCHANGES

“Oxonians had me wear a bow tie”

E

dgar Cristobal is a PhD student in Antoni Riera’s Asymmetric Synthesis Lab. He’s just back from Oxford, in the UK, where he spent four months in the Department

of Organic Chemistry. “To be honest,” he says, “I was expecting much worse weather. Instead, I hear that 2013 has been the best summer over there in years.”

Postdoctoral fellow Ivan Burkov has always been attracted by the possibility of transferring his scientific knowledge into business. (Photo L.T. Barone)

Why Oxford? We have a scientific connection with them. Months ago, they had contacted us because they wanted to use a ligand we are working on, MaxPHOS, for their reactions. It turned out that it did not work too well for them. But I maintained the contact. Do many people in your lab spend study times abroad? In my lab, it is common. Antoni supports people who want to have a scientific exchange. I think it is very useful, I learnt a lot. Like what?

“I have ideas. And I want to learn how to convert them into a business”

“D

o you wish to bring your science to the market? Do you want

I had the opportunity to increase my knowledge in catalysis. I started working on a new project, based on a hydroacylation reac-

experts to show you the way?” The twenty scientists and twen-

ty tutors who gathered in Dresden at the beginning of September clearly

tion. I had to synthesise new PNP ligands and applied them in this

agreed with these two questions, which were the manifesto of the Dresden

reaction. It is exciting to know that this project is continuing now.

Summer School on Technology Transfer in Life Sciences.

Anything that you would like to import to your lab here?

Among them was IRB Barcelona postdoctoral fellow Ivan Burkov, eager

The way we worked there was very similar to what we do here.

to discover how to transform his own ideas into a marketable endeavour.

One thing I really enjoyed was that every two weeks, a group of

“Every one had to present their own project to participate,” explains the

four from the lab with similar projects would meet in front of a

Russian geneticist who works between Roger Gomis’ and Raúl Méndez’s labs.

whiteboard and we would all discuss the reactions we had been

Ivan has his plan in his head. “When I was doing my PhD, I developed a

working on in our own projects. Very stimulating discussions.

project of transgenic goats expressing human G-CSF in their milk. The pro-

What else did you notice?

duction of pharmaceutical human proteins in the milk of transgenic animals

The truth is that logistically IRB Barcelona is very similar to

is very promising. This protein is very active, and so far there are no goats

the Department there. The infrastructures were equally new and

producing these complex proteins that could be very useful. It’s an alterna-

efficient, and they also have, as we do, a good set of core facilities.

tive strategy to bacterial production, which is the current method,” he says.

What about your life outside the lab?

The problem many good-willing scientists like Ivan find is that they have

One sport I tried was punting, which you do on a special flat-

no idea about how to deal with business issues. And it is hard to find some-

bottomed boat, a very fashionable sport in summer in Oxford.

one to teach you. “We have created these goats, they are in Brazil. But there

The social life was also interesting. People tend to have very closed

is no one on the team with business experience, we are only scientists. And

circles, by college affiliation. Then there are these formal dinners.

we don’t know how to tackle the competition with big companies already

They made me wear a suit and bow tie to participate! I could only

producing this protein in bacteria,” adds Ivan. “We have no idea about how

get in as an invited guest. Definitely a very different type of party

to recognise the potential in our project.”

compared to the ones we are used to having here. (ltb)

.

There were many scientists in Dresden who shared Ivan’s hurdles. “Now the project has started to move forward. I am very happy. During the sevenday event, they guided us while we created the model. Now I see the strategy, and I know what steps we need to take.” Ivan is very interested in tech transfer in science. “One of my goals when choosing IRB Barcelona was also to gain experience in this field. I have taken part in courses given here, the environment is very fertile,” he recognises. “It makes the process complete: from science, to tech transfer, to final products. It is of mutual interest for science and industry to make it work.” And there’s also a practical reason to foster this process, as the BAB chair also

.

pointed out (see page 3): “There are not enough places in academia to allow everybody to become scientists. One needs to have a broader experience,” he concludes. (ltb) Edgar’s first time on a punt, a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow. Punters move the boat forward by pushing against the river bed with a pole. (Photo J. Niu)

in vivo

October 2013

| Issue 24

p7


SPOTLIGHT

430 candidates applied for the 2014 edition of “Crazy About Biomedicine” in collaboration with the Catalunyahere,” she affirms, “and show them how exciting science is.” La Pedrera Foundation

“W

lunya-La Pedrera has extended it to five more centres. “The

the end of a day and proposed that I

first day of the course was the best, because I realised how

take part in this programme, it sound-

good and motivated the students are,” says Bahar. “It’s nice

ed amazing to me, and I immediately said yes.”

Bahar was “crazy” about science, too

to see that there are kids thinking about their futures when

Bahareh Eftekharzadeh is a PhD student from

they are only 16.” She thinks there’s more than science in this

Tehran. Before studying Pharmacy there, when

course. “This year I gave them a class on neurodegenerative

she was 16, she was in the National Organization

diseases. But this course is not just about science. It teaches

for Development of Exceptional Talents, a spe-

students who they are, how they handle problems, and how

cial school with courses organised by the gold

they evolve.” She notes that many kids appreciated that she

medal students of the international biology

did not only talk about science. “I told them how they have

olympiad at that time. “The idea was to give PhD student Bahareh Eftekharzadeh. (Photo J. Domínguez)

The programme was so successful last year that the Cata-

hen Joan Guinovart came to my lab at

to have a view about life if they want to be good scientists.”

us a nice spectra of different subjects in

Two of the twelve IRB Barcelona tutors (all PhD students)

biology, biochemistry, evolution, and try

are repeating the experience next year. Bahar is one of them.

to mix this with some experiments. It was

“I am looking to include some changes,” she says. “I still have

an incredible experience. I was so enthu-

messages for these young people, focussed on social aspects

siastic to repeat this experience with these

of life. A good scientist shares ideas, looks for hobbies besides

‘Crazy About Biomedicine’ students

science. They have to open cultural barriers.” (ltb)

NEW AT IRB BARCELONA

ON THE MOVE

The Colorectal Cancer Lab has a new postdoc. Mark James

After four and

(Leicester, UK, 1988) studied biology in York. It was during

a half years as

a Masters in molecular pathology and toxicology in his native city

a PhD stu-

that he began to work on cancer stem cells. “I worked on colon-

dent in An-

cancer-derived cell lines,” he explains, “and I studied the effects

toni

of a common ingredient in our kitchens: curcumin, an Asian food

Asymmetric

additive. It’s a potent anti-inflammatory agent, with strong therapeutic potential against a variety of cancers.” The beneficial effects of the compound had already been identified. Mark studied

.

Riera’s

Synthesis Lab studying the key chemical interactions of natural hormones, Pablo Martín

its effects on cancer stem cells using cell lines. “They turned out not to be a good model. So, I

Gago (Salamanca, Spain, 1985), is ready

decided to study its effects, in combination with chemotherapy, using tissue derived directly

to leap forward in his career. He has just left

from patients,” he maintains. His work on novel clinical agents, and wanting to further his career

IRB Barcelona to join the Max Planck Institute

in cancer stem cells is how he got into Batlle’s lab, where “the research quality is very high,” he

of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, Ger-

says, “and the weather in Barcelona is a bonus!” One thing impressed Mark upon arrival: “I had

many, as a postdoc. “I like mixing my chem-

first-class help from the Institute to get settled in.”

istry knowledge with the biologists around.

New ”la Caixa” PhD student Alexandra Emilia Balacea-

nu (Pitesti, Romania, 1987) in Modesto Orozco’s lab is

I had that here at IRB Barcelona and want it to continue,” he says. “My experience in drug design in collaboration with Maria Macias’ lab

a theoretical physicists by training. She studied in Cluj Nap-

has had a key impact on the success of my ap-

oca, where she also did a Masters degree in medical biophysics.

plication to the Max Planck Society fellowship.”

“This is when I decided that computation was right for me,”

Besides the science, the social activities and the

she says. “I like that, though you can’t touch things physically,

city, there is one other thing that Pablo will miss

you actually give life to interesting abstract objects. You basically let your imagination flow.”

about Barcelona, “Having a coffee on the terrace

She recognises an advantage with respect to the experimental approach: “You can go further than

while reading a paper at any time of the year.”

what you can do experimentally. You are designing things that experiments will test in 10 years!”

In Dortmund, Pablo will try to find small mol-

Barcelona is the second non-Romanian city she has lived in, after Aachen in Germany where she

ecules that inhibit the interaction between the

was assistant researcher at the RWTH Biotechnology Institute. “My sister suggested Barcelona,

signal transduction proteins PDEδ and KRAS, a

where I had never been before. But then I realised that IRB Barcelona is one of the most com-

major target in anticancer drug discovery.

petitive labs in Europe. I was impressed also by the high standard of its administration work.”

In vivo, issue 24. Published by the Institute for Research in Biomedicine. Office of Communications & External Relations. Barcelona Science Park. c/Baldiri Reixac, 10. 08028 Barcelona, Spain.  Web: www.irbbarcelona.org - Facebook: www.facebook.com/irbbarcelona - Twitter: @IRBBarcelona Editorial committee: Luca Tancredi Barone (ltb), Sarah Sherwood (ss) (editors), Sònia Armengou (sa). Contributor: Jordi Lanuza (jl). Graphic Production: La Trama. Legal deposit: MU-29-2012. This document has been printed on recycled paper. To subscribe or unsubscribe from in vivo, e-mail: info@irbbarcelona.org. © IRB Barcelona 2013.


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