A researcher, pure and simple

The first thing that strikes you about Maria Blasco is how youthful-looking and unpretentious she is. At the age of 43, the Director of Basic Research at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), one of Europe’s leading centres for the study of cancer and ageing, is a woman who smiles a lot, is not in the least self-important and is passionate about her research work.

Maria Blasco «La recherche en biologie moléculaire  est une fascinante aventure intellectuelle de tous les instants, une  expédition aux sources les plus profondes de la vie.» © D.B.U Maria Blasco “Molecular biology research is a fascinating non-stop intellectual adventure, a journey to the very beginnings of life.” © D.B.U
Répartition  des télomères dans un échantillon de peau vu à l’échelle de ses cellules individuelles. Les taches  vertes correspondent aux cellules possédant les télomères les plus courts,  tandis que celles possédant les  plus longs apparaissent en rouge et correspondent à un compartiment identifié de la peau où  sont localisées les cellules souches. © CNIO Distribution of telomeres in a skin sample seen on a scale of its individual cells. The cells stained green are those with the shortest telomeres, while those stained red are the longest telomeres which belong to a compartment of skin that has been identified as harbouring the stem cells. © CNIO

“Until I was a teenager, I didn’t have any special vocation. My leanings were more towards literature, and I liked the arts and history. But the turning point came one day when my grammar school invited a group of researchers to present their molecular biology research. I was instantly fascinated by this exploration of living beings. Suddenly I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life…”

Maria Blasco, who grew up in Alicante, studied for her PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the famous Autonomous University of Madrid. It was there she met her thesis director and mentor, Margarita Salas. Blasco wrote her doctoral thesis on a highly specialised subject, in a field that is high profile nowadays but was only just emerging in the early 1990s: telomeres – those intriguing regions of repetitive DNA capping all chromosome arms, which help to protect, replicate and stabilise the chromosome ends. “Margarita introduced me to an extraordinarily fertile field of research. Back then we were only just starting to realise that telomeres provided a unique key to both understanding the ageing process and fighting cancer.”

Blackburn’s successors

For Maria Blasco, this key was also to open the doors of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State (USA) in 1993. There she started to work with the highly inspiring, female-dominated research team, headed by Carol Greider, who had herself been trained by the “grandmother” of telomeres, Australian Elisabeth Blackburn. “It is true to say that Carol Greider’s laboratory was teeming with women during this pioneering period, for a very simple reason. The decisive world influence of women like Blackburn and Greider in telomeres research had helped to dispel the bigotry that all too often propelled men into top science jobs. However, tribute should be paid to one man, Joe Gall, a brilliant telomeres biologist at Yale who fought unstintingly for the cause of women.”

During her four years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Maria Blasco worked to determine the role of telomerase, the enzyme identified by Blackburn and Greider in 1985 which maintains or restores the length of the telomere sequences that permit complete DNA replication during cell division and multiplication. “We needed to identify by cloning the complex genes that code for telomerase. In 1997, I managed to produce the first telomerase knockout mouse, that is to say, a mouse that is genetically deficient in the production of the telomerase enzyme whose telomeres become shorter each time a cell divides. It was a major milestone, when my scientific career really took off. This mammalian model enabled us to determine how blocking the telomere regions affected lifespan and/or resistance to cancerous tumours.”

Spain’s rise to prominence in the biology field

Working in the United States in one of the world’s best laboratories in her field served as a powerful springboard for Maria Blasco’s career. However, the Spaniard was not tempted to extend her stay on the other side of the Atlantic. Spain’s largest public research organisation, the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas), offered her the chance to pursue her research at the National Centre of Biotechnology (Centro Nacional de Biotecnología) in Madrid, by creating her own research team. “We continued to work on our knockout mouse lines. This helped to reveal the complex and contradictory mechanisms by which telomeres work as the “biological clock” of the adult organism, as the telomeres are gradually shortened by the repeated cell divisions that ensure the organism’s growth. We also showed that telomeres are at the origin of the development of cancerous somatic cells, which become ‘immortalised’ when they fail to shorten in the normal way and continue to divide and grow indefinitely.”

In 2003, cancer research in Spain was centralised in a new specialist body, the National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO – Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas), which set up its base in a former renovated hospital in northern Madrid. Maria Blasco joined the CNIO with her research team, where she became Director of the Molecular Oncology Programme. “It was an exciting challenge to create an interdisciplinary centre of this nature, which extends from basic research, to the study of new treatments, to bioinformatics. In the field of telomeres, we have extended our research to cover the decisive role played by telomere length in mobilising the stem cells and have determined the role of a key component of telomerase, known as telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT). This is a preview of the huge potential it holds for intervention in the ageing process and for finding new cancer therapies.”

Knowledge Europe

Maria Blasco is still determined to remain a biologist. “I did not choose medicine. My research is upstream. What I do is to advance knowledge, to explore the amazing complexity of living beings and to open up new avenues, not to treat disease. Others with different expertise are there to do that job. Of course, the idea of combating cancer acts as a powerful driving force in the background. So does the idea of delaying ageing, particularly as increased life expectancy now poses an ethical problem of quality at the end of life. Nature – that is to say, the molecular biology of organisms – attributes extremely varying lifespans to the mammalian order of which humans are a part. By altering the length of the telomeres in our transgenic mice, we are already able to prolong their lifespan without impairing their health. Nowadays humans are living twice as long as they did in centuries past. If science allows us not to prolong life further but to slow down human ageing, why stop this progress? Naturally we are not talking about a quest for eternal youth…”

What about the European Research Area (ERA)? Maria Blasco, who is, or has been, a partner in a number of EU-supported projects and networks, is widely known in the ERA. “Three researchers in my team were selected in the European Research Council’s first call for proposals to receive young researcher starting grants”, she says proudly. Since she returned to settle in Madrid, her personal scientific career has been studded with prizes and awards from a host of public research institutions and private foundations. In 2004, the EMBO (European Molecular Biology Organisation), of which Blasco has been a member since 2000, awarded her a Gold Medal for her landmark work on telomeres and she has been a member of this eminent trans-European scientific body’s Council since 2007. In 2006, she was elected a member of the European non-governmental scientific academy, Academia Europaea.

“For me, molecular biology research was an informed choice. It is a fascinating non-stop intellectual adventure, a journey to the very beginnings of life. However, my education gave me an abiding passion for art, particularly the paintings of the younger generation, which I love to seek out here in Madrid. Occasionally I buy one of their paintings. They don’t cost the earth and give me the satisfaction of helping budding artists to thrive.”

Anything else? Oh yes, Maria Blasco also adores cats. “Poor mice, yet they’re so precious to me…”

Didier Buysse


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