“We'll be able to predict Parkinson's and Alzheimer's before symptoms appear”

Dr González Alegre.
Dr González Alegre. / ÑITO SALAS
  • A former student at the Faculty of Medicine in Malaga, Pedro González Alegre is now the head of one of the most prestigious research centres in the USA

Dr Pedro González Alegre normally comes home to Malaga for his summer holidays, but his most recent visit was to go back to his old faculty, invited by the Biomedicine, Translational Research and New Technologies in Health programme to give a series of lectures to students and lecturers. He obtained his doctorate in Neurosciences at Malaga, but moved to the United States to do his residency, and stayed. He has worked at several US universities, and since 2015 has been the chief director of the Neurogenetics programme, a new centre of translational excellence of the Neurology department of Pennsylviania university.

Are we about to see a revolution in the treatment of neurodegenerative illnesses?

This is an area which has changed greatly in recent years. What happens is that, because of the peculiarities of the nervous system and the obstacles it presents for the application of molecular and genetic therapies, the advances take longer.

How do you see the future?

In the next decade we are going to see a total change in the availability of genetic and molecular therapies, within and outside the nervous system. There will be new challenges, such as who they are given to and how they will be paid for, but that is another debate. What is certain is that they will be available.

At Pennsylvania university you directed a research centre on Huntington Disease and now you are focusing on Parkinson's. What is the difference between them?

Huntington is an illness with a known genetic base, but Parkinson's is a heterogeneous illness with numerous factors involved. One of them is genetic, and that is the part we are studying. We are looking at special populations, such as people who develop Parkinson's at an early age, where there is a clear genetic component. We have also found populations of Jews in north Africa, of whom a higher pecentage than usual develop this illness. It's what we call personalised medicine, focusing on individuals or very specific groups.

There is concern among society about Alzheimer's, which is precisely what you are also researching now.

Yes; it is worrying because some very promising clinical tests have been carried out, but they haven't produced results. That's why we are asking ourselves what the problem is; why aren't we understanding this illness? And we still don't know the answer.

And what is your opinion?

From my point of view all these illnesses, until now, have been treated very late. The key is going to be treating them long before the symptoms appear. Strategies are being developed in order to be able to predict Parkinson's and Alzheimer's before they start to show. Many of the clinical tests at the moment are going in that direction. It's impressive how many genetic and molecular studies are being carried out, and it would be very strange for none of them to produce positive results. However, they are expensive studies, which need a great deal of financing and time for the results to be seen.

You have encouraged medical students at Malaga university to go abroad to do research and specialise. Do you think that's essential?

It's not essential, but mobility is beneficial. They don't have to go to another country; it can be elsewhere in Spain. But yes, moving away from your environment is beneficial. You learn other systems, you are with people who think differently and in that sense the further you go the more different their way of thinking and way of life will be. More than changing country, it is a change of mentality.

Is that why you went to the US originally, and then worked in different universities?

Yes, I've always liked changing where I live and even what I do, because I like doing new things and it's very satisfying.

You're currently back ,visitingthe faculty where you studied; what percentage of your professional success would you attribute to this faculty and university?

A great deal. Not just for what they taught me, but above all for the example they gave me with regard to the future. This is where I started in research. I have good memories of my time here; the training was excellent, especially for such a young faculty and university. A large part of what I have been able to do is due to my training and the encouragement the faculty gave me.

What are the main differences between the American and Spanish educational systems?

The model is a little different, although the standard of training is comparable. The biggest difference is that in the USA students end up with a large debt because the training is expensive. In terms of studies, the basic science and clinical practice form part of the training much earlier than here.

Do the professors have the same dedication as those here?

I couldn't work in the conditions my colleagues in Malaga do. The focus on teaching means you can't do other things. It's admirable how they can do good research, despite the teaching workload. In the US the classes are only a small part of it. I teach about what I do clinically, while others focus more on teaching, or some teach in the laboratory or the hospital. I believe teachers need to be protected and given more time for research.

Many Spanish graduates are moving to other countries because of a lack of opportunities for them here. What do you think about that?

When you leave your country because you want to, because you like the idea of doing research in other places or laboratories, to grow professionally, I think it's fantastic. But having to pack your bags and move abroad because there are no opportunities in your own country is another matter. A lot of money is invested in training a doctor, or any other professional, and it's a shame if they can't stay here and work.