portada de BMM

by Joaquim Elcacho

Biotechnology, biopharmacy, biomedicine, bioengineering ...
The most advanced developments in scientific research now boast a space of their own in our city: the "Parc Científic de Barcelona" (Barcelona's Scientific Park). Its manager is Joan Josep Guinovart Cirera (Tarragona, 1947), a chemistry graduate and a doctor of pharmacy who presently is a tenured professor of chemistry and the head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Barcelona, his alma mater. Among other distinctions, he was awarded the Narcís Monturiol prize for scientific merit in 1999.
"There are times in a researcher's life when he feels called to do things for which he has not really been prepared", Doctor Guinovart explains with excessive modesty when they ask him about his work at the head of the "Parc Científic de Barcelona". Having already proved himself highly competent as a "white-coat" researcher when he was doing research into diabetes, Joan Josep Guinovart is now confirming all the expectations surrounding a project which is aimed at putting Barcelona in the front line of biomedical research at an international level. There are many hours of hard work and great hopes at stake, "but the challenge is well worth the effort".
· The first stage of the "Parc Científic de Barcelona" (PCB) was officially inaugurated in March this year. (...) Do we still have time to catch up with the big research centres which have been operating for a long time now in other countries ?
Yes, we still have time, I am quite sure of that. Moreover, we are a leading institution at a national level. The "Parc Científic de Barcelona" is the first centre of its kind to be set up in Spain and I think that it was created at the right time to reap the full benefits of the favourable atmosphere surrounding scientific research that is presently prevailing in our country.
· It might also benefit from the body of experience built up in other countries ...
Well, yes, we may have learned from others senior to us in experience, but our scientific park is not a copy of any other existing foreign centre. It has a personality of it own which stems from the environment provided by the University of Barcelona, the environment in which Catalan industry operates and the current scientific situation in our country. As a result, where experimental research is concerned, the PCB is placing special emphasis on biomedical research. Likewise, the areas of activity of the companies that form the nucleus of the industrial body actively involved in the project are biotechnology, biopharmacy and biomedicine.
· Biotechnology is a speciality which has developed on a big scale only quite recently. Had the PCB foreseen the growing importance of that field or has its orientation been a recent process of adaptation ?
It was one of the Park's objetives, but not the only one. Eventually, life, everyday life, has demostrated that the field which attracts more attention and interest and which shows the greatest potentialities is biomedicine. So, at that first phase of the project, this has led us to concentrate on aspects relating to biomedicine and biotechnology and leave other studies until later. We have done some market research and we have come to the conclusion that, in the near future, at the second stage of the PCB project, we'll have to work more thoroughly on matters relating to bioengineering and bioelectronics and manotechnology. For the time being, the research centres and "spin-off" enterprises that have started operating are for the most part working in the sphere of biomedicine.
· The so-called "spin-off" enterprises are joint ventures involving public centres or groups and private companies or research initiatives.
That's right. They are scientific ventures started by researchers and supported by institutions, namely the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation and the University of Barcelona, and financed by risk capital.
· Which differences are there between a scientific park and a large research centre ?
A research centre is a place that provides working space only for researchers from one institution. A scientific park is open not only to staff researchers but also to researchers from private institutions and enterprises. Moreover, in our case, there is space for "spin-off" initiatives; this is something you cannot find in other centres or universities. Besides, under the umbrella of the PCB, other institutions such as the Scientific and Technical Services of the University of Barcelona are allowed to operate. Which is to say that our undertakings extend far beyond those of a traditional research centre. Within the park, there is a unit patterned on traditional research centres, the "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica" (Biomedical Research Institute), which is comparable to other major centres such as the Sloan Kettering Center in New York. The fact that the "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica" will operate within the PCB gives us an additional advantage. Therefore, apart from carrying out its fundamental research duties, the "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica" will be able to feed on an enriching atmosphere and benefit from an environment within which many other researchers and different enterprises are working side by side and which will provide them all with an opportunity to exchange ideas and share technological advances. (...)
· As a matter of fact, this is one of the park's objectives: to serve as a magnet for researchers and concentrate diverse initiatives in one place...
That's right. As well as to facilitate permeability between all those undertakings. In that sense, science works by a process of osmosis : the closer the different centres and researchers, the greater the opportunities for the diffusion of scientific knowledge and true interaction, both in terms of ideas and in terms of people.
· Is there any real possibility that you will eventually accomplish something important in the sphere of international biomedicine ? Remember that you face heavy competition and that there are very powerful groups involved in that kind of work.
If we do not accomplish anything important, then we'll have fail. The "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica" was born with the clearly stated objective to become one of the best centres of its kind at a worldwide level. Which means that it has to a centre of excellence, a high-quality institution comparable to the best centres in Europe and the United States. This is our goal and I feel certain that we're capable of achieving it.
· Will participating companies make what we could call "guest appearances" at the parc or will they actually play a major role ?
The parc has a dual function. It acts as an umbrella under which public and private institutions or centres can come together and interact. All these bodies will benefit from integration. Industrial enterprises will be completely free to do their work and follow their own lines of research but, additionally, they will profit by operating in an environment which houses dozens of working teams, generates new ideas that can be used as a basis for business ventures, and takes in young researchers who may eventually switch over to jobs in the private sector.
· What stage of development have the infrastructures of the PCB reached today (...) ?
The complex we inaugurated last spring is the first phase of the PCB. It stretches over a built-up area of some 22.000 square metres. The business companies started setting up there in May and the research groups will move in from next July on. The "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica" occupies 6.000 square metres at that first stage. The "Serveis Científico-Tècnics" (Technical and Scientific Services) were set up in November last year and the non-experimental research groups are also working there already. After the summer, the whole first phase will be fully operative. We are presently working on the second phase of the PCB, which will enlarge it into a complex of 60.000 square metres. (...)
· And what about the people the Park will be staffed by ?
Apart from the interdisciplinary groups that are already at work, for instance, the final decision on the composition of the first teams of scientists who are going to work at the "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica" will be taken in July. The first groups to be established will be the local teams, which will be comprised of the people who are already working at the University of Barcelona and in other Catalan institutions which are being incorporated into the "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica". Besides, we have been taking action to attract researchers from other places in Spain and abroad, as well as Catalan researchers who are working in foreign countries and who had never been presented with an opportunity to come back until now. This first year, we shall be able to bring back between eight and ten Catalan researchers among those who are working abroad, which means eight or ten heads of research groups who will come together with the other members of their teams. To that purpose, we have the support of the "Icrea" programme - from the "Generalitat" Catalan Government - and of the "Ramon y Cajal" programme - from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology -, which have both been designed specifically to help to bring "émigré" researchers back to our country. Moreover, we really have high hopes of proving ourselves good enough to attract expert researchers of any other nationality. The sucess of the "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica" will be established beyond doubt when people with names like Sorensen, Clark or Chiu Li will be working here...
· In which fields will those experts have an opportunity to work ?
At this first stage, the "Institut de Recerca Biomèdica" is giving priority to four main research fields or programmes. Namely, these are : developmental and cellular biology, bio-information processing and structural biology, molecular pharmacology and chemistry, and molecular medicine. The first of these programmes will be managed by professor Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte. And the creation of the bio-information processing and structural biology programme is a natural consequence of the fact that, among other state-of-the-art pieces of equipment, the "Unitat de Ressonància Magnètica Nuclear" (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Department) boasts the first high-field spectrometer to be used in the South of Europe and one of the most powerful ones in the whole world. Last spring, a scientist from the University of Texas came here to work with that NMR machine. For the very first time, a North-American expert came to Barcelona in order to conduct an experiment he could not do in his own country.
· And where the other programmes are concerned ...
The third one is centred on molecular pharmacology and chemistry. Chemistry has become a powerful instrument of biomedical research. (...) And the fourth programme, focused on molecular medicine, is the one that allows us to establish close relations with the other participating centre managed by the University of Barcelona - the IDIBAPS or "Institut d'Investigacions Biomèdiques Agustí Pi Sunyer" (Agustí Pi Sunyer Institute of Biomedical Researches) - which is connected with the Medicine School and the Hospital Clinic. (...) Thus, the University of Barcelona consolidates its position as a major university in the field of biomedical research, with research groups at the PCB and the IDIBAPS in addition to the teams that are working on the University campus itself.
· However, there are also other similar centres in other Catalan universities...
Yes, there are similar research centres at the Pompeu Fabra University and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. This situation will make Barcelona the major biomedicine centre in the South of Europe, and that will be fantastic ! (...) All the great biomedicine centres are located in areas where several research centres and universities are working side by side; this is precisely this kind of coalition that makes them grow and improve the quality of their work. Competition is something fantastic. Many people are willing to move to Barcelona and now, if we are able to provide scientists with first-class positions comparable to those they could find in Göttingen (Lower Saxony, Germany), I think that we have the best chance of success. This is a most propitious moment for Barcelona and, if we play our cards right, we could succeed in making our city a capital in the world of knowledge.
· When will the "Parc Cientific de Barcelona" be completed ?
Possibly in 2006, even though the progressive development of the second phase will start in 2003.
· In any event, this is a necessary investment...
If we want Spain to play an outstanding role in the world of science and technology, more funding is needed, but it's not only a question of getting larger amounts of money. Money is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one.
· Do we need a different legal framework ?
Yes. Exactly. There must be changes in the legislation. We have to liberalize the regulation of science.
· How, for instance ?
The scientific labour market ought to open up. If we want the best scientists to come to our country, we cannot offer them a tightly fixed salary which - at best - is less than half the wages a good lecturer can get from some universities abroad. In any event, we should also improve the present legislation with regard to work permits or the situation of the lecturers who wish to start up their own businesses, their own "spin-off" enterprises. For the time being, in spite of some ministerial attempts to counteract the present conditions, it is not possible for a researcher who works full-time at a university to start up his own business. There should be some legal mechanism for allowing researchers to take a sabbatical leave, for instance, in order to create their own enterprises and, later, return to their positions at the University if they wish to, without having to sit a new competitive examination for them. On the other hand, the University authorities should become aware of the fact that their researchers' work is a source of wealth and that they can get money from the patents obtained by their researchers; this would be a revolution within the University world.
· Another problem has been the excessive separation between science and business. Is this problem in the process of being solved ?
Some changes are being made. To this effect, the University of Barcelona has once again acted as a spearhead through the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation, an institution which specifically aims to improve and strengthen relations between companies and the academic world. In earlier years, some scientists were against the "contamination" of science by business but, nowadays, most of them acknowledge that "good" science is not incompatible with the commercial and industrial use of scientific advances. Scientists must realize that their fears of patents are groundless. A patent does not kill a discovery off. On the contrary, it is the only action that ensures the full development of a given discovery, because no company is prepared to stake time and money on a discovery which has not been patented. Here, we have a lot to learn from the United States where, in 1980, they passed a new law that allowed discoveries to be patented through public money, from the National Health Centre; this was the basis for the following boom in biomedical research in the United States, a sphere of activity which has served to create 200.000 new jobs.