Two VHIR researchers have received awards at the Catalan Health Institute's 2021 Research Awards

Dr Rafael Simó and Dr Blanca Borràs have received awards at the Catalan Health Institute’s Research Conference, which was held at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital. During the event, Dr Joaquín Burgos was also presented with the 2020 prize.

27/06/2021

Vall d’Hebron University Hospital hosted the Catalan Institute of Health's (ICS) Research Conference earlier today, where the 2020 and 2021 ICS Research Awards were presented. During the event, discussions were held regarding the current state of research in the ICS and around the world, and the impact that Covid-19 has had on this activity. The conference, which was hosted by journalist Núria Casanova, seeks to promote high-quality research while celebrating the excellent scientific achievements of ICS researchers. 

“I would like to recognise the excellent research activity and clinical work carried out across 2020 and 2021 during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Dr Albert Salazar, director of Vall d'Hebron University Hospital, adding “our aim for the future is to create further alliances between different centres and different research teams”.

“The prizes awarded today are a recognition of the careers of researchers and the impressive steps being taken by emerging talent. The research institutes associated with the hospitals have a duty to innovate and research more”, explained Dr Joan X. Comella, director of the Vall d'Hebron Research Institute (VHIR), who expressed his delight at the fact that hybrid sessions, divided between online and in-person attendance, can now be held again.

The session was also attended by Dr Josep Maria Argimon, Minister of Health; and Yolanda Lejardi, ICS director. Dr Argimon highlighted the importance of research in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and the huge impact that these findings have had, as well as the challenges that lie ahead in order to remain at the forefront of innovation. “When we talk of transformation, we are talking about research and innovation. Biomedical research in our country is strong, and Covid-19 has shown us that research in this field is fundamental”, he stated. For her part, Lejardi said “I would like to say thank you for the hard work of Spanish researchers who are responsible for generating knowledge in our country. I would also like to make a special mention of their flexibility in adapting their projects to the situation brought about by Covid-19”.

 

ICS Research Awards 2020

This year's conference was slightly different, since the spread of Covid-19 prevented the 2020 award ceremony from taking place. As a result, last year’s awards were never officially presented. Despite the winners being announced in November of last year, it was not until today that the 2020 ICS Awards were handed out. Amongst the winners were two professionals from the Vall d’Hebron Campus: Dr Josep Tabernero, head of the Medical Oncology Department of Vall d'Hebron University Hospital and director of the Vall d’Hebron Institute of Oncology; and Dr Joaquín Burgos Cibrian, assistant physician in the Infectious Diseases Department of Vall d'Hebron University Hospital and principal investigator of the Infectious Diseases Research Group of the Vall d'Hebron Research Institute (VHIR).

Dr Joaquín Burgos was presented with the 2020 ICS Young Researcher Award. In his talk at the 2021 Research Conference entitled “Trying to answer a question. The start of clinical research”, Burgos spoke in depth about his areas of research: pneumococcal disease; HIV and HPV co-infection; HIV infection; and COVID-19. “I would like to say thanks to my family for all the support that they have given me, as well as to the members of the administrative, healthcare and research teams for their help and teamwork. Without these people, it would have been impossible to achieve the results that we obtained”, he said. 

For his part, Dr Josep Tabernero received the 2020 award for his research activity in ICS Hospitals. During the conference, Dr Tabernero presented his study entitled “Translational and clinical research as an opportunity to improve cancer outcomes”.   He took the opportunity to say that “this wouldn't have been possible without the hard work of the various professionals with whom I have had the pleasure of collaborating”. During his speech Dr Tabernero spoke about his scientific career, talking in particular detail about developments in the field of gastrointestinal tumours, with the design of effective targeted therapies against this form of cancer.

Another award winner was Dr Miguel Ángel Muñoz Pérez, head of the ICS-IDIAP Jordi Gol Primary Care Research Support Unit in Barcelona, who received an award for his research activity in the ICS Primary Care Department. During the conference, he presented his study entitled “Research in primary care: the individual and their circumstances”. Dr Mireia Ramos Pérez of the Germans Trias i Pujol Institute received the award for the best health sciences research article written by a pre-doctoral researcher from the ICS and associated research institutes. During the conference, she presented her piece entitled “Regulatory networks of beta cells and type 1 diabetes”.

 

ICS Research Awards 2021

During the Research Day, the ICS Research Awards 2021 were also presented. On this occasion, three professionals from the Vall d’Hebron Campus were also recognised for their work: Dr Rafael Simó Canonge, head of the Diabetes and Metabolism Research Group at the VHIR and head of the Endocrinology and Nutrition Department at Vall d'Hebron University Hospital; Dr Blanca Borràs, specialist physician in the Preventive Medicine Department at Vall d’Hebron University Hospital and researcher in the Epidemiology and Public Health Research Group at the VHIR; and Garazi Serna Alonso, pre-doctoral researcher with the VHIO’s Molecular Oncology Research Group.

Dr Rafael Simó received the 2021 award for his research activity in ICS Hospitals. In his presentation, he spoke about his group’s different research lines on the relationship between type-2 diabetes and cognitive impairment, diabetic retinopathy and the co-morbidities of obesity. “It is an honour to receive this award as it comes directly from the institution - the ICS - which I have been a part of ever since my residency here. Awards such as this give me motivation to keep working hard and making process”, added Dr Simó.

  Dr Simó is director of the Endocrinology and Nutrition Department of Vall d'Hebron University Hospital and head of the Diabetes and Metabolism Research Group at the VHIR.   He is also is a professor of Medicine and Endocrinology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), coordinator of the Vascular Biology Area at VHIR, associate director of Clinical Research at the Vall d'Hebron Campus and principal investigator of the CIBERDEM. Professor Simó (h-index: 54) has also authored 371 publications (60% in the first quartile) and has been cited more than 10,702 times. He has also supervised 18 doctoral theses in his work at the university. He has participated in more than 40 competitive projects and has worked as coordinator on two European projects: EUROCONDOR and RECOGNISED. In the field of innovation, he has registered 7 different patents (two of which have been licensed) and founded a spin-off of the VHIR. Lastly, it should be noted that the Endocrinology and Nutrition Department that he leads has been ranked as the 16th best in the world (the best in Spain and the 4th best in Europe) in a study published this year by the prestigious journal, Newsweek.

Dr Blanca Borràs received the award for the best health sciences research article written by a researcher currently participating in the ICS Residents Programme. During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, her study identified that almost 24% of elderly people living in residences, and 15% of the employees working in these centres, were positive for SARS-CoV-2. More than half of these individuals - 69.7% of the residents and 55.8% of the employees - were asymptomatic. “We took action to improve residential care and made important recommendations that helped to reduce the transmission of the virus”, she said.

Dr Borras is a specialist physician in the field of Preventive Medicine and Public Health who holds a master’s degree in Public Health from Pompeu Fabra University and the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UPF/UAB). She has now been working in the Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology Department, where she completed a residency programme, for more than one year, working to identify prevention and control measures for the Covid-19 pandemic (controlling outbreaks, coordinating track and trace procedures, etc.). In the field of research, she is currently focusing her efforts on new strains of SARS-CoV-2 and their impact in terms of reinfection, vaccine inefficiency, etc. In the field of teaching, she is an associate lecturer in Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology at the UAB Faculty of Medicine.

Garazi Serna, meanwhile, received the 2021 prize for the best health sciences research article written by a pre-doctoral researcher from the ICS and associated research institutes. This year, the prize was awarded ex aequo along with  Juan Carrillo Reixach of the Germans Trias i Pujol Health Sciences Research Institute (IGTP).

Serna’s article studied the persistence of Fusobacterium nucleatum and the risk of recurrence following preoperative treatment in locally advanced rectal cancer.  She is a biotechnologist with a master's degree in genetics and genomics. She currently works as a laboratory manager at the VHIO Molecular Oncology group and is completing a PhD on the development of a multiplex IHC/RNAscope technology. Serna developed a test for the in situ detection of fusobacteria, which was deemed significant enough to be published in the journal Science. She has experience in the creation of image analysis algorithms for the quantification and analysis of different biomarkers and their distribution and interaction in space.

Other professionals to be recognised in the 2021 awards were Oriol Yuguero Torres, researcher at the IRBLleida (ICS Best Young Researcher Award); and Jordi Adamuz Tomàs, IDIBELL researcher (Best Research Activity in Nursing).

 

Analysis of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on research

The conference also included a round table discussion analysing the impact of Covid-19 on research, which was moderated by Dr Joan X. Comella, director of the VHIR, who began by commenting on the rapid response of scientists to the spread of Covid-19. Amongst other factors, Dr Comella remarked on the importance of basic research: “It was key in developing the coronavirus vaccines in record time, which was partly down to the knowledge that we already had of mRNA”.

The hybrid session began with a presentation by Dr Audrey Richard, director of operations at the European Research Infrastructure for Highly Pathogenic Agents (ERINHA), who delivered the presentation virtually from France. “The great adaptability of the scientific community and the exchange of data between different centres allowed us to make constant progress, which made it possible for us to develop diagnostic techniques and vaccines for Covid-19”, she explained. She also reflected on the complicated situation that has led to laboratories being overburdened with Covid-19 research activity. In this sense, she feels that further study is required in order to detect possible mid-to-long-term side effects of the clinical trials that have been ongoing during this time. Dr Richard also stressed the need for us to learn from the lessons of recent months for possible future infections.

Later, Dr Cristóbal Belda, deputy director general of Evaluation and Research Promotion at the Carlos III Healthcare Institute (ISCIII) remarked that, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was no pool of scientific capacity for rapid response between the most important research centres in Spain (Barcelona and Madrid), and neither was there a capacity to combine health information to detect atypical pneumonia during the first weeks of the pandemic. “The pandemic has placed scientific debate at the centre of political discourse and on the front pages of newspapers, and this is a very positive thing”, stated Dr Belda, who added that increased funding and direct funding tools have been key in achieving rapid developments.

For his part, Dr Robert Fabregat, who was director general of Health Research and Innovation during the pandemic, presented the response of the health research system since the start of the pandemic. Among other initiatives conceived to respond to emerging needs, Dr Fabregat explained that “within three weeks, the Department of Health put resources at the disposal of proposals submitted by research centres, which were evaluated in order to provide rapid support to the projects”. Looking ahead, he commented on the importance of public-private collaboration in order to promote innovation and clinical translation as well as creating synergies between all members of the life sciences ecosystem.

Dr  Pere Torán, GP and coordinator of the ICS-IDIAP Jordi Gol North Metropolitan Research Support Unit, spoke of the importance of research in primary care; the focus of which, in his words, is “people”. With regards to primary care, Dr Torán stated that “the pandemic is a mirror of the real situation: rapid, high-quality healthcare. However, it has also been proven that primary care is invisible and that there is a lack of resources for the treatment of other pathologies”. In the field of research, he also spoke of how Covid-19 brought researchers to the front line but also caused other projects to come to a halt.

Finally, Dr Joaquín Burgos, assistant physician in the Infectious Diseases Department of Vall d'Hebron University Hospital and principal investigator of the Infectious Diseases Research Group of the VHIR, analysed the impact that Covid-19 has had on research activity. “The pandemic has caused us to reorder our priorities; demonstrate great flexibility and unprecedented cooperation; find a balance between clinical care and research; disseminate the knowledge that we have generated; and give greater visibility to research”, he explained.

On what the future holds, Dr Comella ended the session by saying “we now have a great opportunity to put everything that we have learnt over the last few months into practice”.

 

Tribute to the career of Dr Ricardo Pujol

During the event, Dr Josep Maria Argimon paid homage to the career of Dr Ricardo Pujol, who is the senior consultant at the Immunology Department of Vall d'Hebron University Hospital, head of the Diagnostic Immunology Research Group and research advisor to the ICS Directorate. Dr  Pujol, who is set to retire in the next few months, explained that, in order to keep improving our research activity, “we should provide the time to carry out research activity and give opportunities to younger researchers”.

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