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Science on the Beach

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When it comes to locations for a research park that attract top-notch scientists, Barcelona’s beachfront might be one of the best ideas in the field. The Barcelona Biomedical Research Park, situated next to Barcelona’s Olympic Harbor, is Catalonia’s newest and largest facility devoted entirely to biomedical research. With space for more than 1,000 scientists, the park comprises several independent institutes and attracts researchers from around the world.

Taking advantage of the location as well as of Barcelona’s established biomedical research capabilities is the Centre for Genomic Regulation, established in 2000 as a nonprofit institute for basic scientific and biomedical research. Known as the CRG, the center is a joint initiative of the Catalan Government, Pompeu Fabra University, and the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science. The CRG occupies two and a half floors of the 50,000-square-meter research park building, with neighbors that include the Experimental and Health Sciences Department of Pompeu Fabra University, the Municipal Institute of Medical Research, and the Centre of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona.

According to Director Miguel Beato, the CRG was modeled after the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. “The center was started in 2000 with the intention to create a different kind of research institution in Spain, more similar to what you find in the northern European countries,” he says. The center has six primary research programs, each of which runs independently, has a globally recruited staff, and operates under a program director. These programs are divided into six broad areas: Bioinformatics and Genomics; Cell and Developmental Biology; Differentiation and Cancer; Gene Regulation; Genes and Disease; and Systems Biology. Within each of those programs are six groups, so that including an external directors’ group, there will be a total of 37 independent research groups on site. Some of those teams have already been fully staffed, Beato says, but “all the programs are still at the very initial phase of development. We are still growing and recruiting heavily.”

The CRG is keen to make its program international — both in that it is recruiting heavily for foreign researchers as well as hoping to create a highly regarded international doctorate program. Beato hopes to eventually have a research staff comprised of slightly more than 50 percent foreigners. Currently, the CRG staff is at 260 — including group leaders, postdocs, students, technicians, and administrative staff — with plans to grow to 360 by the end of next year.

Separate but Collaborative

While the structure of the CRG has been based around six distinct programs, the center still encourages teamwork across the groups. “The programs, although they have terrific names and coordinators, are not separated entities,” Beato says. “We share common facilities. There are many people collaborating among the programs.” Among those common facilities are several core laboratories that handle technologies such as genotyping, microarrays, and advanced light microscopy, with plans for a proteomics core in the works.

Xavier Estivill moved his molecular genetics research team from Barcelona’s Institut de Recerca Oncològica to CRG when it opened in 2000 largely because of the opportunity for partnerships. He is the program leader of the genes and disease group, one of two programs that he says are already quite well developed. “My [group’s] main interests are in the genetic basis of complex disorders … especially those that have to do with psychiatric disorders: anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders,” he says. Estivill’s group researches the contributions of many genetic changes, including SNPs, copy number variation, and noncoding RNAs, to people’s susceptibility to these diseases.

Estivill says that what he likes about CRG is being in close proximity not only to a large number of diverse researchers, but to many diverse institutions — all under one roof. “We get very good interactions with the people that work on splicing, gene regulation, and systems biology,” he says, “so it’s really a very good environment.”

“It’s quite unique, the setup,” says Beato, noting that the building is physically attached to the Hospital Del Mar. “We can establish collaborations that go from the very basic genomic and proteomic aspects of cell regulation to clinical aspects. It is one of the strengths of this project.”

Building Systems Biology

That collaborative nature stretches well beyond the center itself. Not only did CRG model itself on EMBL, but it also formed a partnership with the research institute. As part of the agreement with EMBL, the systems biology program at CRG is a joint effort to merge the expertise of both institutes. Systems bio researchers based at CRG interact with scientists at EMBL and have preferential access to their facilities. The group leaders of the joint program were selected by a search committee composed of several EMBL members.

Luis Serrano is coordinator of the systems biology program and group leader of one of its projects, the Design of Biological Systems. Serrano came to CRG from EMBL, where he led the structural and computational biology department. Additionally, he heads up the technology transfer division at CRG.

The main focus of the systems biology group is its collaboration with EMBL, a partnership that seeks to build on EMBL’s computational biology expertise, Serrano says. His team is pursuing two main projects: one involving elucidating signal transduction pathways, and the other synthetic biology. “We are engineering bacteria to do whatever we want,” he says.

“[We are] using systems biology approaches to study many different biological phenomena, so it’s not that we have in the program a single focus, it’s more the process that people are using,” Serrano says. “Instead of studying one process, or one protein at a time, you have to do a global analysis — it could be networks, could be engineering new organisms, could be mathematical models for developmental biology.”

Technology transfer activities are also important to Serrano. With improved funding for tech transfer and a staff that is increasingly educated on patent issues, he says, “We really want to give a big push to technology transfer. Our goal would be to create a spinoff every two years and around five to six good patents per year. [So] not only to do top-of-the-art research, but also give something back to society.”

In deciding to leave EMBL — and forego an offer from the Max Planck Institute — Serrano based his choice on the larger challenge afforded by the CRG. By heading to Barcelona, Serrano is “not only trying to do good science but also trying to create an internationally well-known institute,” he says.

Name: Centre for Genomic Regulation

Host: Barcelona Biomedical Research Park, which hosts other institutes, including: Municipal Institute of Medical Research; the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences of Pompeu Fabra University; Centre of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona; Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology; Institute of Advanced Technology; and Hospital del Mar.

Director: Miguel Beato

Began: Established in 2000 and officially inaugurated in May 2006

Staff: Currently staffed by 260 research scientists, postdocs, students, and technical and administrative staff; its goal is to reach 360 by late 2008 or early 2009.

Funding: Catalan Government, Pompeu Fabra University, Spanish Ministry of Education and Science, and the Barcelona City Council. Since 2000, the center has received €44 million.

Research: Diverse range of proteomics and genomics research from basic to clinical, divided into six primary areas: Bioinformatics and Genomics; Cell and Developmental Biology; Differentiation and Cancer; Gene Regulation; Genes and Disease; and Systems Biology.

Core facilities: Genotyping, microarrays, advanced light microscopy, with plans for a proteomics core in the works.

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