The “la Caixa” Foundation – BIST Chemical Biology Programme is a joint initiative launched in Barcelona in 2021 with the aim of establishing a powerful new multidisciplinary and collaborative research programme and building an ecosystem to foster research excellence for improving health.
The initiative is supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation and BIST and brings together research know-how and talent from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) and the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona). This is the first initiative of its kind in Barcelona, which is already a hub for world-class biomedical research with existing infrastructures and know-how, making it an ideal location for establishing a new line of cutting-edge research. The programme will advance the field of chemical biology in Catalonia, with the aim of becoming an international reference, attracting talent, and translating research into innovative drug design and development.
Since its launch in 2021, two new group leaders have been selected to join the BIST centres to establish multidisciplinary research teams, incorporate cutting-edge equipment, and build local and international collaborations: Dr. Cristina Mayor-Ruiz (IRB Barcelona) and Dr. Irene Marco Rius (IBEC). The researchers were selected through a highly competitive international call for applications.
What is Chemical Biology?
Chemical biology is the science that studies the behaviour and fate of small molecules in living systems, and as such finds its place in the overlap between biology and chemistry. Chemical biology combines the rigor and quantitative aspects of chemistry (including bioorganic, biophysical, bioanalytical, bioinorganic, and biochemical) with the medical relevance of molecular, cellular, animal, and human biology. In short, it uses techniques, tools, and methods from chemistry for the in-depth study of biological systems.
Molecular Imaging for Precision Medicine at IBEC
Dr. Marco-Rius established the Molecular Imaging for Precision Medicine group at IBEC at the end of 2021. The group’s main objective is to detect, identify, and validate biomarkers of disease. It focuses on the development of molecular imaging tools to identify abnormalities of cell metabolism in human disease and to predict treatment efficacy.
Marco-Rius has established a group of postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and master’s students who work at the forefront of molecular imaging using a technique known as Hyperpolarised Magnetic Resonance (HP-MR), which increases the signal of MR more than 10.000 times. This dramatic increase allows the researchers to see molecular processes non-invasively, in situ and in real time, for a wide range of biological systems. To do so, a HyperSense polarizer (one of only two in Spain) was installed in the Marco-Rius laboratory. The group has already produced proof-of-concept data showing the feasibility of the research projects proposed by Marco-Rius, and more equipment is expected to be acquired in 2022.
Since joining the programme, Marco-Rius has also filed a patent application with the European Patent Office, and the IBEC spin-off company Vitala Technologies was founded to bring technologies developed by Marco-Rius and collaborators to the market.
Supporting women in science
In 2020, Dr. Marco-Rius received a BIST “To the Mothers of Science” grant, which aims to support women scientists along their way to becoming leaders in their fields
”la Caixa” Foundation and BIST have had an important role in my training and research career since the beginning. I am grateful to be part of this exciting programme, which not only gives a good push forward to my research but also encourages collaboration between institutes and groups to foster a strong scientific community in Barcelona.”
Targeted Protein Degradation & Drug Discovery at IRB Barcelona
Dr. Mayor-Ruiz heads the Targeted Protein Degradation & Drug Discovery laboratory at IRB Barcelona. At the interface of chemical biology and cancer research, the group focuses on developing proximity-inducing drugs with therapeutic interest (molecular glues, destabilizers, PROTACs, and beyond), and on tackling biological questions that involve (dys)regulation dynamics of our protein degradation machinery.
In the short time since joining the Programme, Mayor-Ruiz secured competitive national and international grants, including a Junior Group Leader la Caixa fellowship, a Ramón y Cajal grant (ranked first in Biomedicine in Spain), and an ERC Starting grant for the TrickE3 project (€1.5M for a five-year period). The researcher has also developed strategic collaborations with pharmaceutical companies including Aelin Therapeutics, Nostrum Biodiscovery and Almirall.
Beyond drug discovery efforts, Mayor-Ruiz’s group is also tackling exciting biological questions with targeted protein degradation as a foundational basis. Some examples of these include the engineering of models to explore anticancer therapy resistance and pancreatic cancer vulnerabilities. Many of these research efforts are conducted in collaboration with internal and external scientific colleagues, including Dr. Irene Marco-Rius.
“The impact of this Programme has been huge for the establishment of my group at IRB Barcelona. But more importantly, I firmly believe that this initiative can help enhance research at this beautiful interface between chemistry and biology in Barcelona, a city with a powerful biopharmaceutical sector and with the perfect environment to create a competitive hub in this field, which has strong therapeutic potential.”