JOAN JOSEP GUINOVART: "BARCELONA WILL BECOME THE MAJOR
BIOMEDICINE CENTRE IN THE SOUTH OF EUROPE".
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
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
· 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
· 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
· 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
· 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
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
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.