Visions: Maria A. Blasco, Director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre, Spain

Stopping cancer – from discoveries to innovation to tackle a complex disease

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Sep 20, 2019
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Maria A. Blasco has been the Director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) since 2011, following a previous role as Vice Director (2005–2011), and has been Head of the Telomeres and Telomerase group at CNIO since 2003. Her research work has focused on demonstrating the importance of telomeres and telomerase in cancer as well as in age-related diseases. She has authored more than 260 scientific articles and currently has an H-index of 83. Her work has been recognized through numerous awards including the Josef Steiner Cancer Research Award, Swiss Bridge Award for Research in Cancer, Körber European Science Award, the EMBO Gold Medal, "Rey Jaime I" Basic Research Award, the Lilly Foundation Preclinical Research Award, and the Spanish National "Santiago Ramón y Cajal" Research Award in Biology.

Despite substantial advances in technology and fundamental research in oncology, cancer continues to globally burden our society more people will be affected by this disease in the upcoming years and it is expected to cause more deaths than any other pathology. This is a major problem that requires a 360° approach to address a complex and devastating disease.

Aiming at scientific excellence

As the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), it is our mission to contribute to our country’s ecosystem of National Health System, patients and industry so we can ease the effect of cancer in our society. But since the inception of our Centre, understanding how cancer occurs and propagates, and how to prevent and treat this disease, has been carried out in an international context so our discoveries can be shared with society worldwide and we can collaborate with those whose goals are aligned with CNIO’s.

The current European and international scientific space is calling for a multidisciplinary approach to research, and our Centre is committed to this strategy. In this context CNIO has grown since its founding in 1998 into a worldwide-recognized centre for cancer research with the perfect environment for its scientists to thrive. The backbone of what we do lies in our commitment and firm belief that fundamental research, freedom to explore and excellent science can give rise to transformative discoveries that can change the therapeutic and management landscape in oncology. A strategy to bring the best scientists from any country and institution in the world to CNIO has created a microenvironment of enriched scientific culture and multifactorial research and technological approaches for understanding this disease.

An important achievement for CNIO in the economic context of Spain has been to establish a solid support for innovation and a culture to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and technology to our society. This is a difficult task as we have embarked on a mission to efficiently and rapidly translate discoveries into clinical practice and to inform and educate society on the importance of science for future generations. So far, we have successfully developed and transferred to industry four drug discovery programs for the treatment of cancer. Our fruitful relationship with the biopharmaceutical industry has translated into more than 23 million euros in co-development research agreements in the last 7 years and 35% of our patent portfolio being licensed to both national and international companies for future development. As complex as some of the lines of investigation at CNIO may seem, we are finding ways to convey to society how aging and cancer develop, the relevance of basic discoveries in DNA repair and senescence, the potential of genomic sequencing to identify cancer risk and stratify patients, the value of ground-breaking technologies such as cryo-electron microscopy in drug discovery, the global role of inflammation and the immune system in cancer and treatment, and how embedding a drug discovery programme in a research centre can speed up the translation of results from bench to bedside. In our quest to boost scientific culture, we also find ourselves fully contributing to science and society and impacting on future generations of researchers.

The challenge lies ahead and so does our evolving science

Just as cancer evolves and adapts, CNIO has morphed in the last ten years to address pressing outstanding questions in cancer research. Our strength in investigating DNA damage and the tumorigenic process has provided the basis for other lines of research that have naturally come into the spotlight. In the past five years, several groups devoted to solving the mysteries behind metastases have sprouted at CNIO. Intertwining discoveries in different cancer stages and models provide a rounded approach that allows the exchange of ideas between groups working on cancer genomics, structural approaches and tumour signalling. The work in these fields is undoubtedly supported by the commitment of CNIO to having a state-of-the-art animal facility that can house up to 40,000 animals and biotechnology units that facilitate the establishment of unique mouse models of cancer and ageing. Models evolve, change, improve and bring together the value of modelling disease and understanding the patient context. The clinical angle at CNIO is still rooted in experimental research, thus bridging basic and applied science with the important goal of identifying new ways to tackle cancer.

As new classifications and clinical approaches develop, CNIO identifies scientific niches that need to be covered for the sake of science and translational research. New computational and mathematical approaches to deal with large amounts of patient data are under the strategic umbrella of CNIO so we can leverage quantitative science and technologies to address data analysis challenges.

We are currently witnessing an explosion of modelling approaches harnessing organoids, patient-derived mouse models, bid data connecting clinical information with patient omics, novel in vitro and in vivo approaches for drug screening, and patient stratification based on precision medicine. All these new technical and ethical perspectives in research and the amount of data generated through current technologies are bringing molecular and cellular biology to a new level of exploratory research. Complex models of interaction at the molecular, cellular and organismal levels will require both a systems biology approach followed by target and functional validation in the appropriate models of disease before conclusions can reach patients. Single-cell and single-molecule techniques and data are putting forward new interpretations of cancer evolution that can create new hypotheses as to how cancer initiates and progresses. An incredible volume of information is now available to scientists to explore cancer and aging from new and diverse perspectives.

Steering CNIO’s wheel towards success

How we measure success will define the institute projection. Excellence and broad impact are two pillars that sustain CNIO’s achievements. Our combined efforts have brought CNIO to the highest positions in international rankings based on our scientific production and the impact of our research. It is only as a consequence of aiming for excellence that CNIO has also reached impressive levels in innovation indicators. By allowing researchers to explore and focus on their scientific goals and activities, we hope that investigators will get to the peak of their potential during their positions at CNIO.

As Director of a research centre swarming with so much potential and motivation, I focus on ensuring that other aspects of CNIO are aligned to meet the investigators’ needs. Having a full laboratory of my own allows me to understand the problems and issues arising on a day-to day basis. By maintaining this focus on the laboratory, I still keep close ties with the ever-changing scientific landscape to fully understand the advent of new technologies and disciplines, and how to integrate them in the research organization at CNIO. In this regard, advanced therapies developed in different laboratories at CNIO have started to be part of the translational advances of the Centre. How to include this novel aspect of research and development is instrumental, given its relevance in therapeutic development in cancer and rare diseases. To be at the forefront of cancer research entails tackling this complex disease through different fronts, and as Director of CNIO I oversee the strategy so we can cover this vast territory with our science and discoveries.


Photos credit: Amparo Garrido 

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