Mariano Barbacid, head of the CNIO Experimental Oncology Group and Honorary Award in the latest edition of the AstraZeneca Foundation Young Researchers Awards.
The CNIO researcher analyzes the keys to being an international benchmark, as well as the effort and complicity of teachers and collaborators that this requires.
Vocation, a lot of work and a little luck. Those are the ingredients that must be put in the shaker to “be internationally competitive”. Result: the internationally renowned scientist Mariano Barbacid, architect and first director of the National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), currently head of the Experimental Oncology Group at this center and Honorary Award in the latest edition of the Young Researchers Awards from the AstraZeneca Foundation.
And they also need financing, good collaborators and technical support, with personnel capable of implementing new technologies. “Although ideas are fundamental in the scientific world, without the possibility of carrying them out experimentally they do not count.” To have all these elements within reach, you don’t necessarily have to give up anything, “because your vocation makes up for the necessary resignations when you work ten hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. If what you do is what you like, it is not a resignation; what I have done has always been pure vocation, and I have really liked being able to do it”.
It has been more than 40 years since he discovered the first human oncogene, but research, and the translation of that research, is a very slow process, and Barbacid still has to witness the arrival in the clinic of “a drug that really cures the patients who have the mutation of that first oncogene” discovered by him. “I’d like to see it before I run out of brain cells.” And it is not a utopia. “A curse has already been broken because we thought that this protein that causes certain cancers could not be attacked pharmacologically. However, we now know that it can be done, which has opened the door to a very promising future, although it may still take another 10 or 20 years to become a reality. In research, deadlines cannot be set; you have to keep working day by day, ”he says.
Avoid choosing between effort and inspiration. “In order to be successful, the investigation depends a lot on how each one is; if you are very intelligent, perhaps you can put in less hours at work, but those of us who are less intelligent have to put in more hours”. That is, it opts for balance in equal parts, but it depends on the person. “In my case, I think the work has weighed more; that is to say, I would have liked to have had better ideas, although I always tend to look and compare myself with the people that I recognize as smarter than me to try to learn from them”.
teachers and students
“It is often said that the important thing is not that they give you fish, but that they teach you how to fish”, and Barbacid was taught to fish by David Vázquez, “a great Spanish scientist, perhaps little recognized”, with whom he did his doctoral thesis and learned to investigate “Since then, I have learned from everyone, because a scientist has to constantly absorb teachings from those who know more or from those who have come before.”
And he has also taught “very good collaborators who are now great professors at the best universities. Obviously, others have not arrived, but in general I am very proud of the people who have trained in my laboratory and who now have important positions in many different universities, from Johns Hopkins (United States) to the Max Planck Institute (Germany)” .
Even if he wanted to, Barbacid knows that it would be difficult for him to integrate those collaborators he is proud of into a hypothetical new team, due to the conditions that could be offered to them here, but he can set up a group, like the one he has now, made up mainly of “very young people”. The exception is his “fundamental collaborator in the pancreas”, Carmen Guerra, the only one over 40 years of age in a team that also includes the biologist Sara García Alonso, selected in November 2022 by the European Space Agency as a reserve, becoming in the first Spanish woman to be an astronaut candidate, and that “she is a great researcher”.
The CNIO scientist remembers that on his return from the United States he formed a different group of researchers, since they were already trained. “They helped me set up and maintain the laboratory while I spent a lot of time creating the CNIO, a task that was not minor: designing the building, obtaining the equipment and recruiting the researchers who made the center considered for a time the best research in Spain”.
Undoubtedly, another of many reasons for professional satisfaction, although “you must always be aware that you have to improve.” Despite his long career, “I still have the same illusion that I had 20, 30 and even 40 years ago, and I think it is important to add enthusiasm and energy to the baggage of the experience.” Today, “I feel very satisfied and excited to continue investigating.” Cristina G. Real