MARIA BLASCO · A SCIENTIST IN THE QUEST FOR ETERNAL YOUTH

M.BLASCO

Specially at the beginning of having my own independent group, a lot of people assumed I was not the boss. Now that I am the Director of a big center, I also see that women in power are not treated or judged with the same parameters than men. It is tougher for women, but I think we have to go through that as it is the only way to change steriotypes.

Maria Blasco is the definition of a pioneer. This brilliant Spanish scientist and PhD has received top international awards thanks to her research on DNA replication process, which is essential to delay illnesses (especially cancer) and prolong life. She is the director at the National Cancer Research Center (CNIO, Madrid) and an absolute role model for everyone and, particularly, to fellow women in the sciences:

It is a big drama when basic research, which is the seed for new discoveries that will change medicine and help eradicating diseases that still cause a lot of suffering, is not well funded. Governments should devote more funds for research as this is the only way to a better future.

Do telomeres cause diseases?

There are a number of diseases known as “Telomere Syndromes” which are owing to mutations in telomerase and having much shorter telomeres than normal. These diseases include some cases of aplastic anemia and pulmonary fibrosis, among others. In addition, short telomeres in healthy individuals are significantly related to risk of certain diseases. For instance, individuals at the lower percentiles of telomere length may have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.

How is this research applied to cancer healing?

Cancer cells are damaged and dysfunctional cells which have been able to survive by maintaining their telomeres always young. They do this by activating telomerase, the enzyme that maintains telomeres. Telomerase mutations are among the most frequent mutations in all types of human cancer. In my group we are trying to destroy the telomeres of cancer cells by destroying the so-called “telomere protective cap” or shelterin. We have shown that this can impair the growth of aggressive lung cancers and now we are trying other aggressive cancer types.

Does it all affect different races in different ways, both the disease and the treatment?

I am not aware of scientific data on that regard.

Does it motivate you to be able to interest young generations into science and research?

Absolutely, at CNIO we train many students from all over the world, this is essential for future generations.

Do you think that children should learn more about science at school?

Yes, we need to give a scientific education to our children. This is the only way to generate a society that will not be tricked by the so-called lies of the post-truth. It is very worrisome that scientific truths are being questioned by certain individuals just for political and economic reasons, endangering the world and endangering our future.

Is there rivalry in the world of science and research?

Science is a very competitive field, but overall I would say that the science world is characterized by very collegial and ethical behavior.

If you hadn’t become a scientist, what would you be?

I cannot imagine anything else, except maybe an artist or an “art curator” (I think art and science are parallel ways to try to find answers to the unsolved issues of Humanity)

There is nothing that compares to discovering a new thing that explains important scientific questions! Discovery is exciting and an important drive for scientists

I’m proud of having demonstrated that telomerase was essential to maintain telomeres and chromosomes in mammals, we did this by generating mice without telomerase. This also allowed to demonstrate the importance of telomeres in aging and age related diseases. More recently, we were able to demonstrate that telomerase could delay aging and extend mouse longevity. That is also a discovery that I am very proud of.

A life without science would be…?

A life in Stone Ages!

What’s your advice for upcoming scientists?

To keep looking for thriving discoveries, they can change the world and there are many things that need to be changed, like many diseases that still kill us because we do not understand what causes them and thus we cannot prevent or treat them efficiently.

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