New Cardiovascular Centre Puts Heart Into Spanish Research

Good food, great weather, and la marcha, Spain's enviable quality of life, make it one of the most enduringly popular European countries. But what about studying for your Ph.D. or doing a postdoc there? In spite of many scientific achievements, issues of low funding, rigid bureaucracy, and inbred career structures dominate the general perception of Spanish research. But some recent developments indicate that things are changing, and with the incorporation last year of the first research groups into the new Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares (national centre for cardiovascular research) Carlos III ( CNIC), the move to transform Spanish biomedical research entered a new phase. When CNIC finally consolidates its activities in a new building, which begins construction this month in Madrid, it will mark the end of the beginning for an ambitious long-term project to establish a world-class centre for cardiovascular research in Spain.

Begun in 1999, CNIC is the second of three proposed foundations, each focused on one of the principal causes of illness and death in Spain (see box). The new centre is financed by the Ministerio de Sanidad y Consumo (Ministry of Health), at a projected cost of ?60 million. Most of this is earmarked for the new building, to be completed in 2004. With nearly 6500 square metres of laboratory space dedicated to basic research and a further 5500 for technical units and animal facilities, the intention is that the quality of the infrastructure will be second to none. And with conference facilities for 250 people, CNIC will be positioned to become an important venue for international meetings.

The scientific coordinator is Juan Esplugues, senior professor of pharmacology at the University of Valencia. And in a clear demonstration that CNIC's high ambition is based on firm foundations, the executive consultant is Salvador Moncada, whose part in identifying the biological roles of nitric oxide led to his being the second most cited bioscientist in the 1990s. Moncada, who heads the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at University College in London, has brought his vast experience and vision to bear in helping plan and direct the Spanish initiative.

Three-Pronged Attack on Disease

The Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas (Spanish national cancer centre, CNIO) and CNIC are initiatives of the Instituto de Salud Carlos III (an arm of the Spanish Ministry of Health). The idea is to create well-funded, autonomous foundations that will make major contributions to the understanding and treatment of disease. CNIO, run by the famous Spanish scientist Mariano Barbacid, moved into its spectacular new premises in January. A third centre, for research into neurodegenerative diseases (CIEN), has also been announced.

What most distinguishes these centres is their flexible management structure. Unique in Spanish science, they are constituted as independent foundations. This allows for diverse forms of collaboration and funding. Central funding comes from the Ministerio de Sanidad y Consumo, but each centre itself decides how that money should be spent (subject to scrutiny by a supervisory committee of the Ministerio de Educación y Cultura). Each is also able to enter into collaborative arrangements with private companies and to generate funds through its own commercial activities.

This independence extends to employment practices. In the universities and institutes of CSIC (the Spanish research council), senior researchers are civil servants. Competition for appointments is a rigid procedure, with the timing, salaries, and conditions fixed. And new appointees routinely experience long delays before getting funds to do any work. In contrast, CNIC and CNIO offer their own 5-year rolling contracts. This cuts down on bureaucracy and gives the centres and candidates freedom to negotiate the most favourable terms. The centres are also free to source these positions differently. At CNIC, financing comes from their own funds in some cases, but in others CSIC has agreed to continue funding staff already employed by them. In the future outside sponsorship from the private sector is a possibility.

"The idea is to bring together the best of Spanish science in the cardiovascular area, provide a modern infrastructure and funding to generate high-quality research results, and to train scientists and medics," says Moncada. He sees flexibility and openness as key elements of the centre's philosophy: "The centre does not want to restrict its activity to defined lines. We want to find excellent scientists who will themselves decide the general direction of the research." And he is in no doubt about wanting to build a truly international centre in Madrid: "The long-term aim is to attract scientists, whether Spanish nationals or foreigners ... who will build the CNIC into one of the best centres of reference in cardiovascular research at an international level."

Research at CNIC is aimed at identifying the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying the origin and evolution of cardiovascular illnesses. Currently there are four research groups, based for now through agreements with CSIC in laboratories across Spain. The first group to be incorporated, studying the biology of nitric oxide, has recently begun activities in the Instituto de Biomedicina de Valencia. The others are headed by leading internationally known Spanish researchers in the field and are all based in Madrid. The groups of Santiago Lamas, Lisardo Bósca, and Juan Miguel Redondo explore various aspects of gene regulation and pathophysiological processes in the vascular wall. A cytometry unit, run by Alberto Álvarez, brings the total current research staff to 45.

But when complete, the centre will be home to nearly 300 scientists engaged in basic research, with a further 50 staff members employed in 10 scientific development units. These will form an essential part of the centre's infrastructure, developing new technologies and providing support and training in areas such as proteomics and bioinformatics.

Although scientists might be expected to welcome any move to boost Spanish research, there are fears that a two-tier system might develop, with A-list institutes such as CNIC grabbing the lion's share of resources. And the siting of national centres in Madrid has obvious potential to antagonise Catalonia and other Spanish regions.

Esplugues anticipates such concerns, however. "We want to establish a network of collaboration between centres and groups engaged in cardiovascular research," he stresses, so that benefit from the investment is spread to scientists across Spain. CNIC technical training and support services will be available to individuals and groups from other centres, who will be encouraged to spend periods at CNIC to develop common projects.

Juan Esplugues

This open philosophy is not restricted to basic research. A principle aim of the centre is to advance the treatment and prevention of disease. The centre will host M.D./Ph.D. students and boast a 30-strong medical chemistry unit and incubator labs for spinoff companies exploiting research developments. These will all form part of a co-ordinated effort to create a meeting point for all those with an interest in cardiovascular research, bringing scientists, clinicians, and the private sector together to accelerate the transfer of new developments from the bench to the clinic.

The site of the new building is the Chamartín campus of the Instituto de Salud Carlos III. This expansive, tranquil complex in north-central Madrid is within easy reach of several major hospitals and Madrid's two main universities. Foremost among the other research centres on site is the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas (CNIO; see box). The superb facilities at CNIO give the impression of a major biotech company rather than a state-funded institute and are an indication of what may lie ahead for CNIC.

In the meantime, although its building is little more than an architect's model, CNIC's science policy manager, Julia Redondo, is developing its training and education programmes. "Our graduate programme is a 4-year scheme, with annual competition for places starting this summer. So far we have 11 students. Numbers will soon increase, starting with three new studentships this year and building up to an eventual strength of 40 to 50," she explains. In addition to their research projects, the plan is that postgrads will benefit from structured training within the scientific development units and in other areas such as writing and presentation skills. Redondo is clear that these studentships are aimed at the best young researchers: "We want this scheme to become a sought-after program for promising students from around the world."

Julia Redondo

Another demonstration of the centre's international intentions is a 6-year postdoctoral programme in development. CNIC-funded fellows will work for 3 years in Madrid, having previously spent 3 years in a leading international centre. The plan has obvious benefits for postdoc, host, and CNIC, providing excellent training, cementing ongoing collaborations, and bringing expertise back to Madrid. Links with a number of U.K. and U.S. institutions are well established, and the aim is for the first fellows to take their places in foreign centres next year.

Redondo is now considering applications for as far ahead as 2004, so interested candidates should send their CVs now, and check the CNIC Web site regularly. Non-Spaniards needn't worry about the language barrier. Spanish will obviously be important, but English will be the centre's second working language.

Until CNIC's building is complete, staff members face a great deal of disruption, with the prospect of a move into temporary labs on campus later this year, before taking up residence in their permanent home. However, researchers are already seeing the benefit, with CNIC funds allowing for expansion of research efforts. Lamas sums up the positive mood: "I'm especially excited about the mix of approaches the CNIC offers, from basic research to clinical medicine. We now need to achieve a critical mass of researchers as soon as possible. With this, the high-calibre facilities, and excellent scientific leadership, we can create an environment where high-risk projects tackling the important questions are bound to succeed."

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