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Dr. Jordi Camí

general director of the PRBB and the Pasqual Maragall Foundation

Dr. Camí is unique on the Catalan research scene: Director of one of the top international biomedical research parks, expert in science policy, advocate of a code of good scientific practices and a researcher committed to dissemination. He joined Alzheimer’s International, the Pasqual Maragall Foundation, inspired by the scientific project as well as his friendship with the former President of the Catalan Government.

The Foundation is working to create a scientific research center of excellence, the International Research Institute on Neurodegenerative Diseases. What model do you plan to follow?

Unlike many types of cancer or cardiovascular and infectious diseases, there is no treatment for neurodegenerative diseases. Alzheimer’s is diagnosed late in life and we don’t know what causes it; there is no medication that can stop it or even slow it down. This is why the Pasqual Maragall Foundation is committed to a model that is able to concentrate efforts on research projects that can contribute conceptual changes that will help accelerate research discoveries. Scientists are conservative by nature, the peer review system tends to make it difficult for daring or unpopular ideas to be developed, but the history of biomedical advances is full of chance discoveries by talented young researchers. We must support non-conventional projects that are not afraid to take risks.

What global references are there?

Support for High risk/High reward research is scarce. Some large agencies like the NIH offer specific funding for this type of research, but it is modest and recent. One reference, which no longer exists, could be the Basel Institute for Immunology, which was financed completely by Roche and gave rise to three Nobel Prize winners. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, with its president Thomas Cech, has made a strong commitment recently to a different kind of neurobiology center, the Janelia Farm Research Campus.

What role will the private sector play in the research that will be carried out at the Institute?

The Pasqual Maragall Foundation believes that the what is just as important as the how. A project that aims to discover information like this must be funded mainly by private and altruistic resources. The flexibility of this type of resources allows us to take on exceptional projects, which is essential because the model we have chosen requires that researchers work without restrictions. The objective is intrinsically difficult, given that there is no tradition of private-public models in our country. This time we would like the private sector to take center stage. So, we propose two ways to support the project: as a donor (patronage) or as a member-investor in R&D, which have different fiscal implications. And we are working on complementary projects like creating a wide network of members.

Is philanthropy the answer to research funding needs?

In our field, the public sector has always done much more than the private sector. The discreet role played by the private and altruistic sector in supporting new discoveries has, at least, two explanations. One, which is irremediable, is our catholic culture, which does not foster altruism or “giving back” to society like Calvinist societies do. The other is the financial implication of altruism, which is particularly restrictive in Spain, and this can be changed. When only 20% to 30% of donations are tax deductible, the public has no incentive to give money. Altruistic donations to scientific research should be 100% tax-deductible, like in the USA.

What can we expect in the immediate future in the fight against Alzheimer’s?

If we don’t find solutions, the issue of dependency will become unsustainable. Estimates show that half of the babies born in 2000 will suffer from Alzheimer’s at 60. However, if we could put off the onset of this disease even five years, we would reduce the number of people who end up losing their independence by half. Finding ourselves in this blind alley, we must concentrate on early detection using new biomedical imaging and biomarker technologies. Today this can only be done with international cooperation, given that these studies require a large cohort and extended follow-up. An additional problem is that the tests and measures we use nowadays are not necessarily enough, so there is still a lot of room for high-risk projects.

What are the key issues that will be dealt with at the event Alzheimer’s International is organizing over the next few days?

Thanks to support from ISCD-Biocat and collaboration from professor Zaven Khachaturian, director of the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, twenty of the top American and European scientists will meet in Barcelona to reflect on the blind alley we current find ourselves in. We want to promote joint European-US research projects dedicated to early detection. We must standardize follow up of cohorts with the disease and those that are healthy; we must start up wide-ranging cohorts of young people. In short, we must make joint international efforts to take substantial steps forward in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Could you explain what you consider a success for the project and how you plan to achieve this?

Raising money from private companies and banks in times of crisis can be a pipe dream. We’re living the worst-case scenario, as minister Solbes said a few days ago “an unheard-of situation” that we know neither the length nor the breadth of and which will overwhelm us. In these circumstances we must be prudent and realistic, the viability of everything we propose may need to be postponed longer than we would like. But we are determined to achieve our goals.

How do you feel about this new leadership challenge in your career?

I still think it is possible for the private sector to be central to a project that will help make Barcelona a service center for the international science community. This is unprecedented. The current biomedical research system in Catalonia has a good foundation and we should be able to add a new research center with radical characteristics. Both aspects are huge challenges but it is for a good cause and there are so many reasons to make it happen. But we also know that the road will longer and more complex than we initially expected.

If we may, how much is your involvement in the Maragall Foundation due to the fact that you are a friend and personal collaborator of his?

President Maragall and I knew each other before I got involved in the project, but we had never been very close. Above any personal contingencies that may develop and beyond the complexity of the project he directs, I have always admired him and being able to work alongside him is an enormous privilege.

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