She worked alongside Carol Greider, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, and since 2011 she has been running the National Centre for Oncology Research (CNIO). María Blasco, who is from Alicante, is still enthusiastic about her work, even though she has been studying cancer for nearly 30 years now and is considered one of the greatest experts on the disease in Europe.
Blasco, who was tutored by Margarita Salas, under whose guidance she obtained her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology at the Autónoma University in Madrid, insists that the government should invest more on researching this illness which, she says, still brings with it a certain sense of taboo, a fear “which we will only lose when we find a way of stopping tumors.”
Although she supports the idea of individuals being involved in the fight against cancer, and she stresses the importance of finding private donors to finance clinical studies and projects, Blasco doesn't mince her words when talking about the cutbacks imposed by the government in the State Research Plans: “Research is the only way of finding new treatments in the future for illnesses which are killing us now,” she says.
What does ageing have to do with developing cancer?
Cancer is an illness associated with the ageing process. There can be cancer in childhood, but it is rare in comparison. We believe that if we could find out why ageing happens we will also understand the origin of cancer, among other illnesses whose possibilities of development increase with age.
How would you describe the fight against cancer and treatment for it in Spain at present?
In terms of research, Spain is a leading country. For example, the National Centre for Oncology Research, which is in Madrid, is one of the five best cancer research centres in the world.
How have the cutbacks affected the research objectives?
They have affected them a great deal. There is much less money available now in the State Research Plans, which are the ones which distribute the funds between the researchers depending on the merits of their projects and proposals. There have been more cutbacks again this year, but it is not only a question of money; there is now less flexibility when contracting researchers, and that is creating a difficult situation in some centres of excellence in this country, such as the CNIO, for example.
In this country, do people still believe you have to go to the USA, to Houston, for proper treatment?
Maybe so, because traditionally in Spain there have been fewer trials using patients to test new drugs against cancer, but that is changing now. These days, in many hospitals here the patients have access to these clinical trials with new drugs. In Malaga, in fact, the CNIO collaborates through the David Olmos group; he is an expert on prostate cancer, and sees patients in Malaga as well as Madrid. Dr Olmos also has his own research group at the CNIO.
It has been said that cancer has now become an epidemic. Would you agree with that?
It is an illness whose frequency is going to increase as people get older because, as I said earlier, ageing is the greatest individual risk factor for developing cancer. An elderly population will produce more cases than one with a majority of younger people.
What may be causing the high frequency of cancers? Climate change, artificial colouring and preservatives in food, manipulated foods, tobacco, alcohol, ageing...?
Ageing, without a doubt, but the negative impact of habits like smoking and an unhealthy diet is also very important. There is a long list of things we can do to try to reduce the risk of cancer, and they are recommended for everybody, but what we should never do is think that if we get cancer it's our own fault. Cancer is an illness associated with ageing but its origin can also be random. The combination of genetic alterations which occur with age can mean that some people have cancer and others don't.
What do you think about the role of philanthropy among civil society in funding research? There has been some controversy, such as in the case of Amancio Ortega.
I trained as a scientist in the United States and in Spain. In the US I was in one of the best centres of research into molecular biology and it was mainly funded by money from donors. I believe it is very important that governments support research to the maximum, and in that respect Spain is lacking in contrast to Germany or the Scandinavian countries. In fact, Spain is even below the European average. Having said that, I don't think the public should turn their backs. Research is for the common good, it's something for everybody. It is the only way that in the future there will be new treatments against illnesses which are killing us nowadays. That's why at the CNIO we have launched an initiative for individual philanthropy which we are calling 'Friends of the CNIO'. The objective is to open our doors to people who want to lend a hand. Through our website they can contribute to the research and that enables us to retain and attract scientific talent; the more friends we have, the less we will depend on political ups and downs. I would like to show Amancio Ortega round the CNIO and tell him what we do. I believe he would like to know that in Spain we have one of the finest cancer research centres in the world.
Is cancer still a taboo subject in our society?
People with the illness aren't rejected, but the word cancer is still taboo. It still makes us afraid. Research is the only way we will be able to remove fear of the word cancer.
What is your opinion of the standard treatments in the fight against cancer?
I believe they are useful but we need to introduce new treatments and maybe even combine the new ones with the standard ones. The objective has to be to eradicate tumors, and in that sense even all the tools we have aren't enough.
What percentage of the population in Spain could have cancer in 2020?
I don't know the number, but cancer is an illness which becomes more common after the age of 40 or 50. Fortunately, we are living longer now, but that also increases the incidence of cancer.
Do you have an ideal with regard to the fight against this type of illness?
All the researchers who are working to put an end to cancer have the common ideal of finding things which will enable there to be more effective treatments in the future.
Are you satisfied with your time heading the CNIO? Is there anything you would like to change?
As I said, the CNIO is one of the finest cancer research centres in the world. We have taken important steps in innovation, agreements with the pharmaceutical industry... as an example, I would like there to be fewer problems when contracting research staff.
Do you believe Malaga could become a hub for innovation in research into illnesses?
Malaga is a wonderful city. Its cultural facilities and museums makes it a strong rival to Madrid or Barcelona. Malaga could also be a hub for innovation in research, because I'm sure that many scientists from all over the world would be delighted to come here to work. For that, though, the professionals would need three things: enough money to carry out research, good facilities, and support and freedom to research the most important subjects.