"The work done by scientists can be as challenging as that done by clinicians."
After his residency at the University Hospital Germans Trias i Pujol (ICO-Badalona), Alberto Indacochea, who holds a Degree in Medicine from the “Universidad Católica Santa María de Arequipa” (Peru), and is specialised in Oncological Medicine, joined the PhD4MD Programme. He is now joining the Regulation of Protein Synthesis in Eukaryotes group, headed by Dr. Fátima Gebauer at CRG, and the Pathology and Molecular Oncology team at VHIR, led by Dr. Matilde Lleonart. His project addresses RNA-binding proteins as possible biomarkers for cancer progression.
Why did you decide to apply for the PhD4MD Programme?
One of the things that attracted me to oncology was the idea of translational and personalized medicine. During my residency, I witnessed how the results of basic research were elegantly translated into clinical practice in the form of drugs and biomarkers—these coming about from many years of research. The PHD4MD programme provides an excellent opportunity for me to participate in this new approach, while developing my skills as a researcher.
What attracted you to the programme?
Two things. The first is that if you want to work in translational medicine you have to develop skills and tools in both basic and clinical research. The centres participating in the PHD4MD programme are at the cutting-edge of research and are experts in their respective fields.
The second is that one of the options available in the programme was a project on RNA-binding proteins as markers of cancer progression. During my medical training I had the opportunity to collaborate in a study on RNA as a biomarker of prognosis.
We now know that RNA-binding proteins regulate all stages of RNA metabolism, as well as many cellular processes. The dysregulation of RNA-binding proteins contributes to disease and mortality and is associated with cancer progression. However, the biology and function of these proteins is still under investigation in the field of oncology.
What advantages does being a doctor bring to research?
It helps you mainly to question everything, to be innovative, flexible, contribute with a humanistic view of the research, to widen your vision and gain another perspective of the same problem (like two sides of the same coin). Also, being a doctor helps you to delve into basic research in search of creative answers to questions (some challenging) raised in the clinical setting.
I also feel that there is feedback between the two communities—doctors and researchers—as the latter are looking for potential clinical applications for their discoveries. This mutual feedback can provide the basis for future collaboration projects.
This is why it is important to build this dual profile (clinician and researcher).
Few medical doctors do research, why is that?
Perhaps this very much depends on where you've done your medical training, your preferences (in the case of oncology this may range from basic laboratory research to clinical research, care practice, and symptomatic control of patients in palliative care). It also depends on the number of programmes available with this option.
How did the move from hospital to lab go?
It’s a challenging move. All your efforts are channeled into a particular subject and you basically have to be the lab’s expert in your particular field. You work on many things that you may have studied at university, but some concepts have moved on in recent years and you have to get up-to date because most researchers received training in a field of basic science, not in medicine.
Team members really cooperate. When we try to find solutions to challenging problems that arise during our experiments, the curiosity for potential applications of research discoveries in clinical practice is amazing! I experienced this atmosphere while working with Matilde Lleonart’s and Fátima Gebauer’s groups.
When you work in clinical practice, there is always some form of feedback from the patient and you know how things are going by simply asking. Although subjective, this approach is effective. In contrast, while work in the lab involves follows a solid approach and everything is measurable, you can’t always prove things. You then have to rewind and try to work out which part of the process is optimizable and the potential factors that could affect the results. Even a simple step in a chain can make a difference to the experiments. You have to think strategically, like in a chess game.
The work done by scientists devoted to basic research can be as challenging as that done by clinicians in their day-to-day activities.