Insider To Take Over Troubled Spanish Cancer Institute

Maria Blasco

Courtesy of Life Length

Spanish molecular biologist María Blasco, 45, will take over the leadership of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in Madrid, where she is now a vice-director. The announcement, made today by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, ends a 2-year search that became bogged down in controversies over the current director, Mariano Barbacid.

Blasco, who was unanimously chosen by CNIO's board of trustees this morning, obtained a Ph.D. at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Centre in Madrid. She did a postdoc at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York with Nobel laureate Carol Greider, and joined CNIO in 2003 to lead the Telomeres and Telomerase Group and direct the center's Molecular Oncology Program. She became vice-director for basic research 2 years later.

Blasco is best known for her research on the enzymes that maintain telomeres—repetitive DNA sequences capping the chromosomes—and their role in cancer and aging. She co-founded a company called Life Length, which measures telomeres for patients, companies, and researchers .

Replacing founding director Mariano Barbacid, who in September 2009 announced his intention to step down and focus on research, wasn't easy. A search by an international panel that yielded two foreign candidates and two more from within CNIO came to an abrupt end last month when the international panel resigned because candidates' names had been leaked to the press. The leaks occurred during a high-profile spat over Barbacid's intention to establish a commercial partnership to fund the development of an anticancer drug, which the ministry declared illegal.

José Jerónimo Navas Palacios, who directs the Carlos III Health Institute in Madrid and, as vice-president of the CNIO Board, oversaw the selection process, says he's "satisfied" with the appointment. Blasco has the "appropriate scientific relevance, an adequate knowledge of the context, and adequate international relations," says Navas Palacios. She is "the best [director] available for our project."

But others were hoping for an outsider at the helm, if only to make a break with Spanish science's reputation of institutional nepotism. Manel Esteller, director of the Cancer Epigenetics and Biology Program at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute in Barcelona, says it's "good news" that a woman has been elevated to a top position, but says Blasco is "not the right person for that job." Esteller would have preferred one of the outside candidates selected by the international group; Blasco's appointment "represents a typical image of hispanic inbreeding," he wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.