The new “la Caixa” Foundation – BIST Chemical Biology Programme launches a hub in Barcelona for the design of new drugs

The “la Caixa” Foundation and the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST) are launching the “la Caixa” Foundation – BIST Chemical Biology Programme to advance research in chemical biology, and to develop new medicines. Two centres – the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia and the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, join the initiative with the incorporation of two new group leaders: Dr. Irene Marco-Rius (IBEC) and Dr. Cristina Mayor-Ruiz (IRB Barcelona). The researchers will lead their own chemical biology groups at their respective centres, establishing a framework for multidisciplinary research collaboration.

The main objectives of the project are to launch a powerful research programme in chemical biology, and to attract talent through the creation of a hub in Barcelona focused on this discipline. With the collaboration of the two leading centres, IBEC and IRB Barcelona, multidisciplinary research and the establishment of an important hub in the city will be encouraged, opening the door to new chemical biology collaborations and projects.

With this programme, the “la Caixa” Foundation takes another step forward in its firm commitment to ensuring health research is transferred to society. For more than 30 years the institution has been committed to research excellence, convinced that promoting health research means investing in people’s wellbeing. Thus, support for research programmes and innovation is essential to promoting an ecosystem that fosters the search for new solutions and provides answers to major current and future challenges in the field of health,” says Àngel Font, Corporate Director of Research and Health at the “la Caixa” Foundation.


Dr. Irene Marco-Rius explains that her group will focus on developing innovative molecular imaging technologies to diagnose diseases and assess early response to treatment. “The cells in our body adapt rapidly to their environment and change the way they get nutrients and energy needed to survive. My group works with technology that allows us to study these chemical reactions inside our bodies (or using tissue bioengineering), and to find markers of disease or drug responses before anatomical changes occur. For example, we can distinguish between cancer cells and healthy cells inside the body using a magnetic resonance imaging device without any pain and without the need for a biopsy.”

Dr. Marco-Rius adds that “biomedical research is very multidisciplinary, and a hub of excellence that fosters collaboration and the exchange of knowledge is needed to support scientific breakthroughs. In this respect, Barcelona as a city, and the “la Caixa” Foundation – BIST programme are key elements for us to continue our cutting-edge research“.

Dr. Mayor-Ruiz stresses that “chemical biology has great translational potential, especially for the production of new drugs. Promoting a powerful hub focused on this discipline in an environment like Barcelona, which has a strong pharmaceutical presence, is therefore especially interesting.” Cristina Mayor-Ruiz’s new lab works on targeted protein degradation, an innovative technique with therapeutic applications. “What we do is use chemical entities (drugs) to reprogramme mechanisms that our cells naturally employ to degrade proteins. We redirect these mechanisms towards proteins that are of therapeutic interest. Examples include the treatment of cancer, specifically pancreatic cancer, for which there is currently practically no treatment available.”

Chemical biology, a booming discipline

Chemical biology studies the behaviour of small molecules in living systems, combining the quantitative techniques of chemistry with the medical relevance of biology. One of the goals of chemical biology is to develop new drugs, as Prof. Herbert Waldmann of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology describes: “Chemical biology has the inherent capacity to contribute to the improvement of human life, in particular by inspiring and fuelling the development of new and better drugs and improving human nutrition.”

While in countries like Germany, where Prof. Waldmann’s institute is located, chemical biology is an important research discipline, there are only a few isolated research groups working in this discipline in our country. The “la Caixa” Foundation – BIST Chemical Biology Programme is thus of particular importance, aiming to advance chemical biology research in Barcelona, which already has strong biopharmaceutical sector. The programme offers the unique opportunity to take advantage of this existing infrastructure in Barcelona to advance this discipline both locally and internationally, and to establish a new line of multidisciplinary research that does not yet exist in our country.

A programme to boost young talent

The programme has led to the creation of two new junior group leader positions, for which researchers Cristina Mayor-Ruiz (IRB Barcelona) and Irene Marco-Rius (IBEC) have been selected. The selection of Dr. Cristina Mayor-Ruiz fulfils the programme’s objective of attracting talent, as she is a young researcher with a strong track record in chemical biology. She obtained her PhD in 2017 at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in Madrid, before moving to the Research Centre for Molecular Medicine (CEMM) in Vienna, with the support of EMBO and Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowships.

Dr. Irene Marco-Rius brings research excellence and international experience to her role. She obtained a master’s degree from the University of Heidelberg (Germany – “la Caixa”-DAAD Postgraduate Fellowship), and a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2014 (UK – Marie Curie ITN Fellowship) and then, after postdoctoral positions at the University of California – San Francisco (USA) and at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, she joined IBEC in 2018 as a researcher in the “Biosensors for Bioengineering” group (“la Caixa” Junior Leader Postdoctoral Fellowship). Dr. Marco-Rius has been coordinating the European project Bloc since 2020.

Dr. Marco-Rius’ new position also represents a success story for the BIST To the Mothers of Science leadership programme. She was one of the winners of the 2020 edition of this programme, which aims to support mothers working in research as they advance in their respective fields, equipping them with the necessary tools to succeed in leadership roles. Dr. Marco-Rius will launch her own chemical biology lab at IBEC this year.