“These corridors hold some of the best specialists in the world”

An interview recently published in Ellipse, the monthly magazine of the PRBB.

Tempted by journalism, Josep Maria Antó finally plumped for medicine. Specialising in pneumonia and epidemiology he discovered his passion for research in the 80s when he was directing research on the asthma epidemics in Barcelona. A pioneer in the study of environmental factors on respiratory diseases, he joined the IMIM in 1988 and the UPF in 1999. Since 2005 he has been directing the CREAL and the Respiratory Diseases research programme.

What are your memories from the early years of the old Municipal Institute of Public Health? 
It was an exciting time. We built an information base to support the health policies, because without information it is impossible to make intelligent and fair public health policies. It was necessary to transform the health system inherited from the dictatorship and in many aspects it had to be completely reorganised.

The soya case was your first success. 
We had organised a register of hospital emergencies which allowed us to see which part of the population was affected. It was a scientific and health triumph because we discovered what was causing the asthma epidemic: the unloading of soya in the port of Barcelona. They put filters in a silo and the problem was solved. In a short period of time we published 4 articles in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine.

How has the view of environmental risks changed? 
At that time, the majority of specialists assumed that atmospheric contamination was not relevant to health. With the register created in 1991 we concluded that the air quality standards of the WHO didn’t adequately protect public health. Now everyone recognises that it is an important public health issue.

Do you think that the policy responses are adequate? 
Normally any policy responses are insufficient and come too late. The environmental risk regulation mechanisms require a lot of accumulated scientific evidence. In this way, the measures are implemented late, when the consequences are often devastating. It is necessary to go forward thinking about the principle of protection.

What does working in an environment like the PRBB offer you? 
Working with the best helps you improve, Not only because you learn and get ideas, but also because it makes you competitive. At the PRBB the level is so good that it generates the need to excel. The other thing in its favour is the interdisciplinarity. It is easy to move through the corridors and find some of the best specialists in the world in a specific subject!

Can you combine research with the management of the CREAL? 
I think that in order to direct research it is necessary to keep researching, even though it’s clear that you can’t spend the same kind of time on it and sometimes that is frustrating.

What are the next challenges in your research? 
I have started a European project, MeDALL, coordinated jointly with INSERM, on the mechanisms of allergic diseases. It ranges from epigenetics to systems biology. This is one of the major scientific challenges that I have faced and I’m very excited.

What advice would you give to a researcher just starting out?
More than advice, what young people need is excellent education and the means necessary to develop their scientific careers. At the CREAL we are developing a “mentoring” programme for young researchers.

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