Spain Offers Helping Hand to Hospital Researchers


This article is reposted from the 17 October 2003 issue of Science Magazine.

B ARCELONA--The Spanish government is giving hospital-based clinical researchers more freedom and cash in an effort to boost their role in the nation's biomedical research effort. Health minister Ana Pastor unveiled a package of measures this week that is intended to boost collaboration between hospitals, universities, and research centers, liberate hospital-based researchers from clinical duties, and even lead to the creation of spinoff companies at hospitals. "The present structure of biomedical research, dividing the basic and clinical arms, is artificial and inappropriate," Pastor told Science. She said she wants to foster "a culture of innovation in public hospitals."

Pastor, a 45-year-old physician who became minister last year, decided that hospital-based research needs help after noting that 47% of Spanish biomedical papers published between 1994 and 2000 had at least one author from a hospital. In Spain, most basic science is done in government research centers and universities. "We need to rethink the organization of clinical research," she says.

As a first step, the health ministry will provide funding for public research centers, in collaboration with hospitals and universities, to become "reference centers" for particular areas of medical research. For example, Pastor will soon approve funding for a reference center on environmental health and another on regenerative medicine. This second center will support human stem cell research, maintain a registry of facilities holding frozen embryos, and eventually supply cell lines to authorized researchers. The center will also house a national cell line bank to manage and store all lines created from embryos left over from fertility treatments.

Pastor also wants to give greater freedom to hospital-based researchers. Last July she changed medical training rules to allow young physicians to become full-time researchers after completing their residency. This week Pastor said the ministry will award 5-year "sabbaticals" to senior, talented clinicians to free them from clinical duties and allow them to concentrate on research. "Most physicians at public hospitals are currently charged with full health care duties so that any research activities are practically secondary to clinical work," says pharmacologist Jordi Camí, director of the Biomedical Research Park of Barcelona, currently under construction.

With that new freedom, Pastor hopes that hospital-based researchers will launch start-ups based on their discoveries. To prime the pump, the ministry is setting aside $4.7 million next year to fund "orphan clinical trials" aimed at finding new uses for drugs whose patents have already expired and are of little interest to drug companies. Pastor also announced that grants will focus on prevalent diseases that have not received as much attention as cancer and cardiovascular diseases, "with the goal of fostering research on brain and mental diseases, respiratory and environmental diseases, as well as international health," Pastor says.

The new initiatives are a departure from Spain's recent policy of channeling its efforts into large, focused facilities such as Madrid's national cancer and cardiovascular centers ( Science, 15 March 2002, p. 1995). Researchers have generally welcomed the new decentralized approach. "By promoting a horizontal organization through networks that integrate basic and clinical researchers, the time needed for new knowledge to be transferred and actually applied to medical practice will be shortened," says hepatologist Juan Rodés, director of the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute, a high-profile research institute in Barcelona.

Xavier Bosch is a science writer based in Barcelona.

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