Archive | March 2014

“A little bit of knowledge generates a great deal of ignorance”

Kim Nasmythed

Kim Nasmyth, 63, is a renowned researcher who co-discovered cohesin, a protein complex crucial for faithful chromosome segregation during cell division. Amongst other prizes and distinctions he is a member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), a fellow of the Royal Society and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). The British scientist has been director of the Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna for seven years and is currently the Head of the Biochemistry Department in Oxford. This chemist with a passion for climbing visited the PRBB last November.

Many of your students have become very successful scientists… what are you like as a mentor?

I have to admit I am not very sympathetic, I don’t go around holding hands with my students. But I help them think clearly, to set their sights high, expect a lot; but also to distinguish between what is achievable and what is not. I try to teach them to strive to give an explanation, not only to produce data.

What is science for you?

I believe the driving force behind science is realising there is a problem: it is what I call the “Apollo 13” symptom. On the other hand, the most dangerous thing in science is to believe you have learned everything, that you can explain it all. In science, the more you learn, the more questions appear. A little bit of knowledge generates a great deal of ignorance. And I think that is what defines real science: that each question you ask, when answered, raises all sorts of other equally, if not more, interesting questions.

You share the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba, take nobody’s word for it. Do you think science can help create an evidence-based society?

I think the scientific way of doing things and a scientific mindset should play a major role in this. But at the moment I believe science is in crisis, as pointed out by a recent article in The Economist. The career we have set up for scientists is encouraging a type of researcher interested only in pleasing their peers, and not in pursuing the truth. We have lost our moral compass, because we have lost our belief in God. We can’t forget that many great scientists of our time were religious, and that helped them to keep to the truth; the fear of burning in hell if they did not do this. We have lost that fear, and now we need to recover that morality without God.

Perhaps scientists have lost their morals, but isn’t there a control system for published research?

Yes, we have control by peer-review but this is such an amorphous global concept. We’ve lost control by the closer community, the people who know you, who know how you work. This is the real way of controlling someone. You would never publish something that the people around you, those that you care about, don’t think is worth it.

How can this control system be improved?

We would need to change the reward scheme, and the whole peer review system. And we would have to be ruthless, shut down the things that don’t work.

This interview was published in the June 2013 edition of El·lipse, the monthly newspaper of the PRBB

Science at PRBB: Xavier Estivill’s Genomics and Disease lab (CRG)

Xavier Estivill and his Genomics and Disease research group at the CRG are trying to find the genetic causes of complex diseases using the latest genomic technologies. Focused on central nervous system diseases and on non-coding RNAs, he is also involved in international sequencing projects such as the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC). Hear him explain his research in this short video!

Global cancer control: an interdisciplinary approach to prevention

Christopher Wild (IARC) 2 retalladaThe director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Christopher Wild, celebrated his birthday in style this year. On that special day, February 21, he gave a talk to a full auditorium at the PRBB, in what was the 3rd Global Health session co-organised by ISGlobal, CRESIB and CREAL. This was his second visit to the park, the first one being six years ago, when the building was pretty much empty. “It’s great to see how now everything is thriving!”, he said.

Wild started pointing out the three aims of the IARC, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO): describing occurrence of cancers, evaluating prevention strategies, and supporting implementation in clinical settings. He highlighted particularly the low-income countries where cancer cases are increasing exponentially, with 60% of cancers worldwide now being in developing countries.

The role IARC is crucial if we take into account that 30% of non-transmissible diseases in 30-70 years-old are due to cancer. And especially so if we look at the predictions based on demographics: according to the agency’s director, by 2030 there might be 21.7 million cases of cancer, when in 2012 there were 14 million.

“Cancer patterns are not static; as countries develop, so they do. We need to think forward”

As Wild pointed out, we cannot treat our way out of cancer, so what we need is prevention. Half of the cancers could be prevented by the knowledge we currently have. And taking into account that most cancers have environmental or life style causes, the potential to act is even greater. We have known for years that tobacco, infections, alcohol, lack of physical activity and obesity are factors that can increase your risk of cancer. And we know prevention works, as proven by the decrease of lung cancer cases in countries such as Finland of the UK after tobacco bans were introduced. But it takes a long time. Take the example of cervix cancer: screening and vaccinations against the papilloma virus can decrease its incidence, but at least 20 to 30 years have to pass before we can see an effect on the population! So, as Wild stressed, political vision and leadership is essential in order for prevention to work.

But if prevention is proving difficult, there’s an area which is even more neglected: implementation. The speaker explained some successful cases. One involved aflatoxin, a known carcinogen produced by a fungus that grows on peanuts and corn. In 2005, intervention in some 20 villages in Africa, where simple resources were given to reduce exposure to the fungus (by using mats to reduce humidity, etc.), lead to 60% reduction in exposure. In turn, this lead to only 2% of the villagers having the toxin in blood, as opposed to 20% of people in villages in which intervention hadn’t taken place.

But despite the success of this proof of concept, eight years later nothing has been implemented at a general level.

It is clear that there is a lot of work to do in this area. When asked how far the IARC should go in terms of pushing for this kind of actions, the director was cautious. “Once you become an advocate, your science is under suspicion”, he declared. Sadly, this is the reality faced by some scientists working in the health sector, whose research result can be seen as the outcome of hidden interests if they are too active in pursuing policy changes. Should scientists then just publish their results, perhaps act as advisors in some committees, and then sit back patiently and wait until politicians decide is time to take action? Hearing some of Chris Wild’s arguments and examples, I personally think not. But his point about the dangers of advocacy was a good one. The debate is open….

A report by Maruxa Martinez, Scientific Editor at the PRBB

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