ISGlobal Celebrates its Annual Scientific Retreat with a Broad and Dynamic Programme

Ricard Solé gave an inspiring introductory lecture on the potential use of synthetic biology to redesign the biosphere


“The annual scientific retreat is to our institution what harvest day is to the communities,” said ISGlobal Director Antoni Plasència when opening the event that took place at the CosmoCaixa on Friday June 8. And indeed, it was a plentiful and diverse harvest celebration, where many exciting results and future projects on a broad range of subjects related to global health were presented. The event was successfully organised by ISGlobal researchers Cathryn Tonne and Hernando A del Portillo (ICREA).

The opening lecture was given by Ricard Solé, ICREA Research Professor at UPF, whom ISGlobal’s Scientific Director Josep M. Antó described as a leading figure in communication between scientists and with the wider society. Solé explained how the changes experienced by our planet in the Anthropocene era are likely to be abrupt “tipping points” which will have a great impact. He proposed that one solution to the large-scale problems we are now facing is synthetic biology, which involves redesigning cellular circuits in living organisms that, by reproducing and expanding, can help restore the equilibrium in our ecosystems. He gave some examples on how microbial biotechnology can be used to restore degraded ecosystems or engineer synthetic symbiosis in drylands, and he mentioned Ascension Island as the first synthetic ecosystem that exists thanks to Charles Darwin. He concluded his talk quoting British physicist Dennis Gabor: “the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.”

The morning session started with highlights from recent papers published by the different ISGlobal programmes, and ranged from a case report on Zika virus infection and spontaneous abortion, to the effect of air pollution exposure during fetal life on brain morphology and cognitive function, or to the immune response associated with malaria protection in African children having received the RTS,S vaccine.

A heated debate followed, on whether the global burden of disease (GBD) is useful or not for setting research or policy priorities. While David Rojas and Sarah Davoren advocated for the use of GBD as a tool to identify research gaps and evaluate policies, Manolis Kogevinas and Quim Gascon argued that the estimations done by the Institute of Health Metrics are often not reliable. The overall conclusion was that better quality data, particularly from low-resource countries, is sorely needed.

The afternoon included a very dynamic session of five-minute “Turbo Talks” by predoctoral and postdoctoral students, who managed to present their research projects in a brief but clear manner. It followed with a presentation of some crosscutting capacities within the institution that can be of great value for the different research projects – intellectual property, bioinformatics and biostatistics, and Geographic Information Systems. The afternoon concluded with the presentation of the new major upcoming projects at ISGlobal. Jordi Sunyer and Payam Dadvand presented the Barcelona Birth Cohort to study the effect of prenatal exposure to air pollution, Jose Muñoz presented the telemedicine Trip Doctor application that will allow to obtain health data during international travel, and Regina Rabinovich presented the Unitaid-funded BOHEMIA project that aims to explore the use of ivermectin as a complementary vector tool in malaria elimination settings.

Plasència closed the event underlining that these retreats also contribute to planting new seeds and that creativity, empathy, time and patience are key qualities for the institution’s future.