Researcher Josep M. Aran leads the "Immune-inflammatory processes and gene therapy" research group within the program "Genes, Diseases and Therapy" of the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL). With nearly 16 years of experience in the field of inflammation, he focuses on the study of the molecular basis of immune-inflammatory processes. This line of research has already led to 3 active patents, one being written at the moment, and several projects in collaboration with private companies.
Generally speaking, what do you research about?
We study the molecular basis of inflammatory processes, which are the cause or consequence of many diseases. In recent years, we have been working to identify molecules that may play an anti-inflammatory or immune-regulating role.
What are the practical implications of this research?
Identifying anti-inflammatory or immunomodulatory molecules may have a very important impact on autoimmune processes and transplants, where their use may help combat organ rejection processes. Nowadays, we already have anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive drugs, but they have very important side effects; therefore, we seek alternatives that have the same efficiency without these unwanted effects, thus improving the quality of life of patients.
Have you already identified some candidates?
Yes; to date, we have identified a molecule that was already known for its role in inhibiting the activity of the complement system - a very important component of our innate immunity - but which also has an effect on dendritic cells, which are the ones that initiate the entire acquired immune response. In 2013, we submitted a patent for this molecule, and later licensed it to a company with which we kept collaborating; this year, this collaboration has led to a second patent. We now test the effectiveness of the molecule to prevent or stop the development of autoimmune diseases such as lupus or inflammatory bowel disease in animal models.
Are there any benefits in collaborating with a private company?
Our group carries out basic research, but we are in a healthcare environment and, in my opinion, we should carry out projects that translate into practical applications, through patents and licenses. Beyond the financial return, which we can reinvest in research, the license has allowed us to carry out a side of the research that we could not have done alone, such as working in various animal models. Research-business collaboration is very important and helps reasearchers to drive, in a targeted way, certain projects that may lead to clinical trials or even reach the market.
Are innovation and technology transfer sufficiently promoted within our research system?
I do not think so, perhaps because so far in this country there has not been a long tradition of carrying out research focused on transfer. It is true that publications in the scientific community have a lot of weight and allow us to amplify the work we do, but it is also important to think about protecting intellectual property, especially if it can have a practical application or attract interest from companies. The way to do this is through patents, and in the academic environment sometimes the effort that takes to have the vision and awareness of what is being done and what the applications that may have is not sufficiently valued, especially in basic groups. We are in a healthcare environment, and publishing is not enough, we must go further; in practice, what is important is to reach the patient and that is why we need to promote technological transfer, both research institutes and researchers.
What should the role of research institutes be in this process?
A single person can not do everything; as a researcher, if you carry out projects, lead a group, write projects for funding calls, etc. and you are interested in submitting a patent, for example, you need support. The technology transfer process involves having a good knowledge of the procedures and the associated bureaucracy, and it requires skilled and motivated people to deal with companies and external agents. The IDIBELL innovation area team has helped us a lot in this regard.