Edith heardAt 56, he laughs when he remembers his youth. She was born and raised in London, but when she started school at the age of five she couldn’t speak “not a word of English”, because until then she had learned Greek, her mother’s language. Marveling at the enormity of the cosmos and determined to be an astronomer, she arrived at Cambridge University at the age of 18 without ever having received a biology class in her entire life. There he bought a book to catch up and when he opened it he was amazed: “I discovered everything for the first time. I saw amazing images of cells. There I had my eureka moment and I realized that I did not want to study physics, but biology. I made the decision in 30 seconds, literally ”. The vocation of a lifetime can vanish in half a minute.
That British woman who did not speak English at the age of five, nor had she seen a cell at 18, is today the general director of the main European institution dedicated to revealing the secrets of life: the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The organization, with 1,800 workers and offices in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, opened a new facility in Barcelona in 2017, focused on studying the development and functioning of the organs of living beings.
Heard’s specialty is epigenetics. If DNA is imagined as a sequence of letters with the instructions for the functioning of a living being, the epigenetic changes would be like accents, with the ability to modify the message and cause disorders, such as cancer. The big goal, says Heard, is to learn to manage these accents with drugs, to reverse the diseases. The geneticist, who has just obtained French nationality after living half her life in Paris, visited Madrid last Tuesday to meet with the Minister of Science, Pedro Duque, and study future collaborations.
Question. You have said that your intention is for the EMBL to cause a “Wow!” to citizens, in the same way that the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) achieves it with discoveries such as the Higgs boson.
Answer. That is what I want. And I think that already happens with some things. EMBL participated in the Tara Oceans project, an expedition to discover biodiversity in the ocean. This causes a “Wow!” Two years ago they published the discovery of 200,000 new viruses in the ocean, at the North Pole. Why is the North Pole a hotbed of viral diversity? I do not know. That to me is a wow!
P. You have been the head of the EMBL since 2019. Before the pandemic, you said you wanted to brainstorm with your best scientists to identify the big questions to answer. Do you already know what the big questions are?
R. I organized brainstorming as soon as I arrived. It’s very ironic, because I did a presentation with a slide talking about emerging pandemics. I said that they often occur in areas where human action destroys ecosystems.
P. Just before the pandemic?
R. Two years ago, before the pandemic. We already knew there was a risk, because we knew of other viruses such as SARS. We need molecular tools to understand what is happening. We knew that these matters were very urgent. And then came the pandemic. I promise I’m not Cassandra [una figura de la mitología griega con el don de la profecía]. That’s the kind of big question we want to understand: how pandemics emerge. Another question, for example, is why antibiotic resistance is growing so fast. It is not only in hospitals, you can see resistance to antibiotics in ocean bacteria. We want to understand why it happens.
“Many companies stopped developing antibiotics, so now there are few drugs”
P. What could be the reason?
R. We don’t know, that’s the big question. If we could understand what happens, we could prevent it. Many companies stopped developing antibiotics, so now there are few drugs. The next killer will be this. In 10 or 20 years we will be dying from infections of bacteria resistant to antibiotics, which we will no longer be able to treat. In the last 100 years we have doubled our life expectancy, thanks to things like antibiotics and vaccines. If we don’t do something, within 20 years the antibiotics that exist today will not be able to treat the infections that we will have. It is going to be the next pandemic. The new EMBL program covers these issues.
P. In the profile photo of your laboratory you have a cat in three colors: white, black and orange. What does it have to do with your specialty? [Heard ha descubierto mecanismos epigenéticos gracias al estudio de uno de los dos cromosomas sexuales, el X, del que las hembras tienen dos copias (XX), mientras los machos tienen solo una (XY)]
R. For centuries, people in the countryside have known that tri-colored cats are normally female. The reason is that they have two X chromosomes, because they are female, and there is a gene on the X chromosome that can produce either black or orange color. If you have the black version of the gene on one X chromosome and you have the orange version on the other X chromosome, the coat color will depend on which chromosome is expressed. Normally, in the rest of chromosomes the two copies [la del padre y la de la madre] they are expressed, but that does not happen with the two X chromosomes in females: one is turned off and the other is active. Sometimes it is your mother’s X chromosome and sometimes it is your father’s X chromosome, so each cell expresses a different X chromosome during embryonic development. Sometimes it is orange and sometimes it is black. You have a mosaic, which is what we see in females. In males you will never see it, because they only have one X chromosome, which is either orange or black. White is something else, it is for lack of melanocytes.
P. When you won last year the L’Oréal-UNESCO Prizesaid there is hope in getting epigenetic drugs to treat some types of cancer and other diseases. What is an epigenetic drug and when will it be available?
R. The genome is made of DNA. In cancer, if you have a mutation that affects the DNA, it is already there, you cannot undo it. But now we know that some changes are not at the DNA level, but at an epigenetic level: chemical modifications of DNA. [las tildes sobre las letras]. We now know that there are major epigenetic changes in cancer, not just genetic ones. And these epigenetic changes are very interesting, because you can undo them. An epigenetic drug is a drug that changes these epigenetic modifications. Some already exist, like decitabine, which is used for acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. A gene can cause cancer by being silenced or overactivated. Sometimes it is on when it should be off, or vice versa. This switch can be epigenetic and you can try flipping it with an epigenetic drug. The problem is that there are some drugs for these forms of leukemia, but in the field of solid tumors, such as lung cancer, less progress has been made. Epigenetic drugs are already being used, but a few years ago I thought that everything would go faster.
“Science is sexist. It is not even a criticism, it is a reality “
P. You have often said that science is sexist, but you also stated in an interview that you are not a feminist. What does it mean?
R. A feminist with a card participates in mobilizations and I have never done it. However, when I look back on my life I have always stood up for women. When I was in college and we started physics classes, I was one of only two women in the classroom. I realized that science is sexist. It is not even a criticism, it is a reality. This is how society works and it is changing. But physics, for example, is dominated by men. Biology, less. I am not a cardinal feminist, but I am concerned about human rights, equality and diversity. And the position of women in science is something that deeply worries me. It’s one of the reasons I took the job. I thought that agreeing to be the first woman to lead the EMBL was important to show other women that it is possible. I don’t mean to be a role model, but to be just an example that it is possible. I am not a feminist with a license, but I defend equal rights.
P. The word feminism it means that in spanish. The French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi also stated, in an interview with EL PAÍS in 2017, that she was not a feminist. Perhaps in France the concept of feminism is more political.
R. There may be something cultural, yes. I think what bothers me a bit is that I have a daughter and a son and I see that women can be very successful and, at the same time, for boys life can also be hard. I am a feminist, but I am concerned that boys may be successful too. Most of the men I know are also feminists.
P. You founded with other colleagues the National Program for the Urgent Reception of Scientists in Exile, a French organization to help researchers from countries in crisis or at war.
R. Yes, it was launched a few years ago, when there were many displaced by the war in Syria. We are talking about people like me, but who from one day to the next have to pack their bags, lose decades of science because their institutions have been bombed, and leave with their families without knowing where they will end up. My daughter studied international relations and was learning Arabic. On weekends I had exchanges with refugees who came to France and wanted to learn French. The students were teaching the refugees French and they needed more people, so I signed up. I met some of these young people and people my age. That really made me aware that these people had lost everything and needed help.
P. What did you do?
R. With my colleagues from the Collège de France [una institución en la que Heard era profesora] We went to the French Government and they welcomed the idea very well. In a few months we had funding and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior were ready to launch the program. At first the researchers were not only from Syria, but also from other countries, such as Turkey and Libya. In some cases, the scientists had simply signed a manifesto and told them to leave the country. We received the files of these people and we had to evaluate them not only by science, but really by the degree of emergency. You read his resume and realized that his entire life was about to be destroyed. They are people with incredible stories. A woman was dean of a university in a North African country, but the new president was a religious extremist and decided that women should not work in these positions, so she denounced the situation and had to flee overnight. It is very exciting to be a part of this. It makes you realize how important and fragile democracy and freedom are: we can lose everything overnight.