“In the future, we’ll stay young longer”

Inspiring people

05/07/2018

María Blasco (Alicante, 1965) heads the CNIO National Center for Cancer Research, the second-ranked cancer research center in Europe and fifth worldwide. Patience, enthusiasm and perseverance were decisive in bringing her to the top of an institution that employs over 500 people. She is confident that scientific advances will lead to greater equality and fairness in our world and that efforts to eradicate cancer show promise for the future.

Did you always want to be a molecular biologist?

No, not always. In fact, when I was a kid, I only knew what I didn't want to be. I didn't want to be a doctor or lawyer or teacher, none of the professions I saw in the world around me. All I knew was that I liked figuring out how things worked, how life worked. During a university

orientation course, I heard about molecular biology and biochemistry and discovered that it was possible to be a researcher in those fields. From that moment on, I knew this was my calling. I remember being in my second year at university and treating my first biochemistry book—Lehninger ("Principles of Biochemistry")—as though it were a book of poetry. The poetry of life.

Can you describe the day-to-day of a scientific researcher?

It is team work. Every researcher might have their own project but moving it forward means engaging with other researchers. It is also international work; it involves collaborating with scientists around the world and going to scientific conferences. Science has no borders. It is also altruistic work; work to deepen the understanding of humanity, which benefits us all. And above all, it is very creative work. Shedding light on what is unknown requires great creativity.

Is there any way of knowing what our life will be like between now and the 22nd century?

The future is unpredictable, because there could always be a new breakthrough that revolutionizes the world and changes everything. I'm an optimist and believe we will move toward a world of greater equality and fairness. I hope that we will be citizens of the earth and do away with borders.

Will we age better or stay young longer?

Both. At this point, we age much better than we did just a few years ago, but it is possible that in the future, we will also stay young longer. We already know how to delay aging in worms and mice so by applying this knowledge, it is quite possible that this could also be done in humans.

Will we be healthier?

We're already more health conscious than a few years ago (a clear example of this is how smoking has gone down and people exercise more) and even though certain diseases like obesity are on the rise, I think we'll be able to reverse that with preventive and educational measures. I think this health consciousness will grow even further, and we'll have fewer and fewer toxic habits.

What is it like to manage an institution like CNIO, which employs around 500 people? Is it a big responsibility?

It is a pleasure and a big responsibility, which I happily take on. CNIO is the second-best cancer research center in Europe and the fifth worldwide in terms of scientific publications, according to Nature’s ranking. We're also working very hard to bring these breakthroughs to society and to patients through significant innovation efforts. We've already seen some success, which makes us very proud. We hope to keep growing.

How did scientific research survive the economic crisis? Have we lost a lot of time?

At CNIO we maintained our full funding by increasing the number of agreements with the pharmaceutical industry, philanthropic donations through our “Friends of CNIO” initiative, as well as more donations and financial legacies. In addition, we have significantly increased the sale of biotech products developed at CNIO, along with licenses and patents. However, we’ve seen a decrease in scientific staff due to the challenges of stabilizing contracts in our country's public sector.

Is there any research underway that raises the possibility of eradicating cancer in the future?

Cancer comprises many different diseases with a variety of genetic causes. Some tumors have more than 700 mutated genes. We're trying to kill a genetic monster by throwing darts at a handful of genes, which makes it very difficult. Even so, we are developing new darts every day, very sophisticated ones that are increasingly effective, but it will require a lot of research to put an end to all tumors.

What medical advances do you foresee in the coming decade? Which fields will see significant changes?

We are moving toward increasingly personalized and sophisticated treatments. Personally, I would like to see medicine move toward preventive care, to try and detect diseases early or prevent them altogether in order to make it easier to treat them successfully. I think we will see growing social pressure to find cures for aging-related diseases, which will occur with greater frequency as a result of demographic aging.

Do you think trends like veganism, healthy eating, etc. will help increase life expectancy?

Healthy lifestyle choices (the Mediterranean diet); locally sourced, insecticide-free foods; physical exercise; not smoking... all of it could help.

Do you think we could live to be 120 years old?

As a species, sure. This has already happened. A French woman lived to be 122 years old. It seems as though this is the natural biological limit for our species. As individuals, our life expectancy at birth is still at about 80-plus years, depending on the country. The good news is that it keeps going up.

What does it take to reach the top at an institution like CNIO?

It takes a lot of patience, determination, and great enthusiasm for meeting the challenges we set ourselves.

Our ability to monitor ourselves is getting better all the time. Do you think that this will help us with early disease detection in the future?

Absolutely.

You have repeatedly voiced your concerns about the gender inequality that women face in the sciences. Did you have to do more than a man to prove yourself in order to get to where you are now? 

I don't know if I had to do more than a man to prove myself, but generally speaking, women in positions of power tend to be better prepared than men in similar positions. We need more women in decision-making roles to encourage more women to take that step forward and strive for the top.

Do you think wine has any health benefits? Why?

Some studies have indicated that resveratrol, which is found in red grapes, has health benefits. But wine has to be consumed in moderation, because alcohol also has harmful effects.

 

A Brief Taste

The best moment to enjoy a glass of wine?

During dinner with friends.

A song to accompany a good wine.

Wine goes well with relaxing music. Maybe something by Tulsa, Ann Brun, Maria Rodes, Silvia Perez-Cruz.

A place to get lost in.

On a walk along the sea or in the mountains.

What do you do in your free time?

Go to the cinema, see an exhibition, walk in nature...

A flaw and a virtue.

That's a question better answered by people who know me!

What did you want to be as a kid? And as an adult?

As a kid, I knew what I didn't want to be. Now I want to keep being a scientist; I wouldn't change it for the world.

Categorías: Inspiring people