Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Spanish Scientist, co-discoverer of the human oncogene

Mariano Barbacid Montalbán spent most of his professional career in the United States. In 1998, his return to Spain after a 24-year absence was greeted with extensive coverage in the media, not just in the medical trade press, but in the mainstream newspapers and magazines as well. His return, he said at the time, was not due to a sudden bout of homesickness but came after receiving an "offer no researcher could refuse".
The Spanish Minister of Public Health gave Barbacid the chance of heading a no-expense-spared national cancer research facility, the "Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas Carlos III" (CNIO). With 100,000 square feet of lab space the center, the first of its kind in Spain, occupies an old disused hospital in Madrid, restored and converted at a cost of some $25 million and due to open in 2001. Meanwhile, his team's initial work was being carried out in borrowed lab space, with a grant from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

It is a personal triumph for Barbacid, co-discoverer of the human oncogene, who had criticized the lack of funding for cancer research. In modern Spain "this is one of the last remaining challenges", he has said. Half the center's annual budget of $30 million is paid out of Spain's National Health System and the other half from research grants.

Mariano Barbacid was born in Madrid in 1949. At age 25, shortly after receiving his doctorate in Science and with work offers from six American research centers, he moved to the United States. Between 1974 and 1988 Barbacid worked for the US National Cancer Institute in Maryland, first as a basic scientist investigating molecular and genetic oncology, and later carrying translational research into early diagnosis of cancer. In 1982 the team headed by Barbacid was one of three to first isolate a human oncogene, a major breakthrough which shed new light on the molecular basis of cancer.

Barbacid later worked for the Department of Molecular Biology at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Princeton, New Jersey, until March 1998 when, turning down another offer from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, he returned to Spain.