BARCELONA, SPAIN—A pioneering Spanish stem cell center has suddenly lost its leader—and some worry it may lose most of its research projects as well. On Monday, developmental biologist Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte stepped down as the director of the Center of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona (CMRB), which he helped create almost a decade ago.
Izpisúa Belmonte was personally involved in most of the research projects at the center, which he ran while also a professor at the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. Press reports have suggested that he may try to take many ongoing projects with him and that this could reduce CMRB to an empty shell.
Izpisúa Belmonte is one of the elite expat scientists lured back to help raise Spain's scientific profile since the beginning of the century. After the adoption of a 2003 law for assisted reproduction that allowed researchers to use frozen human embryos and derive embryonic stem cells, the Catalan and Spanish governments charged him with the creation of CMRB as a pioneering research center in developmental biology and regenerative medicine.
He became one of the most prominent scientists in his field; last year, his group produced mini-kidneys from pluripotent stem cells, one of the "organoids" that Science picked as runner-up for the Breakthrough of the Year in December.
The Spanish newspaper El País, which broke the story on Wednesday, cited sources close to Izpisúa Belmonte who claimed that he is leaving primarily because of "the lack of financial and political support" from the national government in Madrid and Catalonia's regional government. Some scientists have already chastised authorities for failing to keep him happy.
But Joan Guinovart, the director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, says that CMRB's funding so far has been “generous;” the two governments, too, say support has been unwavering. Each has poured €1.7 million a year into CMRB since 2008 just to cover its infrastructure, a spokesperson from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, which oversees science and innovation, tells ScienceInsider. Both Spain and Catalonia are committed “to continue to bring resources” to the center, adds Carles Constante, director-general of planning and research for health at the Catalan government.
A rather opaque press statement issued on Wednesday by CMRB hinted at other issues. The institute's board of trustees—which has representatives from the Catalan and Spanish governments, local universities, and sponsors—"acknowledges the quality of professor Juan Carlos Izpisúa's research work while expressing the inevitable need to change aspects related to the management and organization of the Center," it said.
Andreu Mas-Colell, the government of Catalonia’s minister of economy and knowledge, says that Izpisúa Belmonte had made clear from the start that the Barcelona center would largely be an extension of his laboratory at the Salk Institute. While he successfully launched the center and the field of regenerative medicine in Spain, “after 10 years it is simply convenient and important that the director be somebody working full-time in the institution,” Mas-Colell says. The board wants the center to adopt a more standard management model that includes recruiting senior researchers, developing independent research lines, and attracting more European funds, he says. Constante adds that the board wants the center to do more so-called translational research, which is focused on clinical applications.
Izpisúa Belmonte did not respond to requests for comment. He has not publicly discussed his future; many expect him to take up research at the Salk Institute full-time. El País has reported that “Izpisúa has the intention to take with him 18 out of the 21 scientific projects at the center, considering them his ideas or initiatives.”
Mas-Colell confirms that there are concerns over patents and that government lawyers will look into the issues. “I very much hope that we don’t get entangled in legal disputes on matters of intellectual property,” he says. “The board … would love the scientific collaboration between researchers in Spain and Dr. Izpisúa [to] continue.” Constante says that Izpisúa Belmonte was principal investigator on 13 of the 21 projects, but that under Spanish law, the intellectual property rights remain with the institute.
Guinovart credits Izpisúa Belmonte with helping Spanish science develop, but says that the country—and Barcelona in particular—is home to much more talent now, calling into question the practice of letting scientific stars from abroad work part-time in Spain. A change in leadership at CMRB is a natural way to foster dynamism and renewal, he adds: “Nothing abnormal has happened here.”
The same day that Izpisúa Belmonte handed in his resignation, CMRB's board nominated Ángel Raya, who now leads the Control of Stem Cell Potency Group at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia in Barcelona, as his successor. The two know each other well; Raya spent 6 years as a research associate in Izpisúa Belmonte’s lab at Salk and was CMRB's scientific coordinator from 2006 until 2009.