Miquel Viñas is a professor at the Department of Pathology and Experimental Therapeutics, delegate of the Rector of the Bellvitge Campus UB, and researcher Infectious Diseases Group and antibiotic sensitivity of the IDIBELL. We have talked with him about the model of the Health Campus of the University of Barcelona, which has been recognized by the Ministry of Education as a Campus of International Excellence, and about the future of research.
What has meant the integration of Bellvitge and Clinic Campus in the Health Campus of the University of Barcelona (HUBc)?
Both, the Bellvitge Campus and the Clinic Campus, are two transatlantic sailing with some degree of independence. The integration on a single campus, the Hubc, has been a reasonable and positive encouragement and allowed us to be recognized as Campus of International Excellence. This recognition has not substantially changed the stage where we work but it has opened some opportunities for cooperation. We are currently working on a project in Portugal and we have opened some lines of cooperation with Africa. Of course, being part of the campus of excellence has also created a new entry funding that has enabled us to perform other actions such as building a new classroom building that will begin before the end of the year. The UB is very privileged because it has two campuses of international excellence (the HUBc and the Barcelona Knowledge Campus) and this is important because it seems that in the future, funding of universities will be linked to form part or not, of the network campus of Excellence.
Would it be a fairer funding model to a quality university?
Justice in financial systems is a subject for discussion. It has led to excessive growth of some structures in Spain, for example some research institutes have grown a lot but they have done to the detriment of smaller but interesting proposals that have come disappearing ingested by the larger ones. As the book of the German economist E.F. Schumacher says "Small is beautifull", there are small nuclei where the ideas more than technology can deliver impressive results. I believe in the financing of major but respecting the survivability of little ones.
What is the challenge of HUBc?
The challenge is clear: to validate our position as a campus of international excellence. The evaluation commission will visit us during April 2012 and we must show what we have been able to do with the resources in our management strategy, research, teaching ... The start of construction of the new classroom building will be a physical realization of what we have done but we can also present the new showroom to present medical acts, our internationalization projects at the faculty of medicine ... Possibly HUBc will be evaluated very positively. It is essential because this will depend on our funding.
What is the role of UB in the IDIBELL?
A campus like this is meaningless without the university, a research institute accredited by the Instituto Carlos III, situated in the national research elite, and it has no sense without the hospital. These three components are essential. It is evident that the history of each of the partners gives them their personality and sometimes this can hinder understanding. The degree of understanding between the hospital and UB is admirable; with the IDIBELL perhaps it is not as fluid because they clash in the field of research. Of course, most researchers who are doctors of the hospital are also in the UB, but not everyone at the university feels part of IDIBELL
We must intorduce the culture of understanding, because in the end all we are dedicated to the same things: research to improve the health of people, to publish articles, for career advancement ... We should reach a point of understanding, which although good, could be improved if it exceeds certain institutional or gremial reluctances which do not have much sense. No one would think that there is a health quality care without research and without the teaching of young doctors and nurses, health workers in short, who should replace us. The dialectical process should be normal in an institution as large as this.
What future awaits these young people, if they want to be involved in professional research?
The truth is I do not know. I have the impression that the financial crisis will have little influence on the country's research system, in Spain and Europe. Although there will be less resources to research, those as me who have some years, began in a situation infinitely worse than what we have now. I always thought that good research only needs a good brain; I changed my mind on a visit to a university in Bulgaria where I understood that, indeed, needs a good brain, but that have to stay in a well fed body that doesn't get cold in winter. We are still far from this situation. Less resources can make us uphill and concern us because we can loose strenght compared to other countries but it should not significantly compromise the future of research. Now, the future of these young in terms of wage or access to a job will be difficult because they have always been undervalued and underpaid jobs. I also tell them that I thought the future was almost impossible and here we are.
Let's talk about research. What are you working on at the Infectious Diseases and Antibiotic Sensitivity group?
Our research has enormous clinical implications but we are lab animals, working on a very basic level. We are interested in the mechanisms of bacterial resistance. We work with highly resistant bacteria and some very virulent as Pseudomonas and we study their susceptibility and resistance to antibiotics. Research in this area is changing previous positions. And we are observing that antibiotics that were completely abandoned because the incidence of resistance had made them practically useless, now we find bacteria sensitive to these old antibiotics and already resistant to modern ones. Older drugs could be used with a different use (dose changes, formulas, in combination ...) that could increase the potency of antibiotics. This is the future but it should be a change in attitude of the pharmaceutical companies, which for the moment, are more focused on antitumor and antiretroviral drugs than on antibiotics.
How does arrive this change in the research?
So far we understood that the resistance was due to the presence of genes that behave antibiotic resistance: changes in the structure of the protein responsible for the transport channels to the membrane of bacteria (porin) or the incorporation of reflux pumps which can expel the antibiotic ... however, some indicators that have emerged in recent years show that bacteria behave in a more complex form. Some bacteria change their morphology and sensitivity in the presence of antibiotics and generate heteroresistence phenomenon, of epigenetic base. However, the bacteria in the absence of antibiotic behave sensitive. We have published a study on insertion sequences near genes coding for porins. Under certain conditions, this sequence jumps in the middle of the gene and protein encoding stops, transforming the bacteria into resistant. It's kind of switch: with antibiotic, sensitive, no antibiotic, it can re-encode porin.
Epigenetics is very important in the study of cancer, and IDIBELL is a great example, but, of course, the bacteria also have epigenetics, they behave differently in response to environmental stimuli. In fact, humans are well organized bacteria. All the mechanisms observed in higher organisms are identical in bacteria.
What is your perception of IDIBELL?
As a researcher, IDIBELL has given me opportunities to cooperate or interact with other research groups. It places basic researchers in a richer context. In our case, it has allowed us working with microbiologists at the bedside. In fact, our research with Pseudomonas begins with a question of clinicians. IDIBELL is a great meeting point.
How can IDIBELL improve?
IDIBELL should actively intermediate between research groups and productive world, to connect researchers with business. Not since the institutional side as does the Biopol, but working as a kind of sales office. I also believe that among researchers exists some confusion between the various institutions and somehow those who have government responsibilities must explain the organization so knowledgeably to the researchers that, in reality, they want to know is which door should call when they need something concrete.