José Mustre de León Director General of CINVESTAV, spoke to Mexico Health Review on the center’s healthcare research.
Q: CINVESTAV operates in 12 health areas. Which are the top three for the Mexican healthcare market?
A: The largest is probably pharmacology but we also have significant operations in genetics and molecular biology, which helps us touch on more modern themes such as translational medicine, genomic medicine, metabolic diseases and chronic-degenerative diseases. In addition, infectology is another important area, due to the rise of emergent infectious diseases. Our infectomics and genetics departments are working on zika and chikungunya. It would appear that these infectious diseases are no longer a main health concern for Mexico but it necessary to remain vigilant.
Q: What is your ideal student profile?
A: It would be a student with a solid foundation in biology, mathematics, chemistry and physics and with strong communication skills. We base our admissions on propaedeutic processes and, at the end of the courses, we choose the best students. This gives us time to homogenize our student population and to measure the students’ work capacity. Around 25 percent of our students who have studied medicine want to move into research; around 50 percent are biologists and another 25 percent come from other areas such as chemistry or engineering.
Q: What is your strategy to strengthen the international competitiveness of Mexican researchers?
A: The Ministry of Public Education gives us specific funds for mobility, which differentiates us from most universities and research centers and enables over a thousand of our graduate students and faculty members to participate in annual short-term visits abroad. These visits are often based on long-term collaborations and increase our international presence.
Since CINVESTAV was founded, our strategy has been to bring in the highest quality researchers. Currently, 25 percent of our researchers are not from Mexico and around 70 percent have studied abroad.
Q: Why do these students return to Mexico?
A: Until recently, part of that may have been the high salaries CINVESTAV pays its researchers. There is also easy access to students here, yet this is not expensive because most students have scholarships paid by external agencies, like CONACYT. This is unlike what happens in other North American universities, where a graduate student needs to be directly financed by the project being researched.
Q: Researchers often publish before considering IP, losing out on patents. To what extent does this happen at CINVESTAV?
A: Publication is vital for a researcher’s career development due to the national academic evaluation system in Mexico. We have an office of technology transfer within the institution, which in some cases contacts a researcher to delay publication and generate a patent beforehand. Our policy is that if a product or development does not have short-term commercial potential, it is not convenient for the institution to file patents, whereas scientific publication is a valuable asset. We only filed 44 patents in 2016.
The time and resources needed to conduct clinical trials are sometimes beyond the scope of an educational-research institution like CINVESTAV. For example, we have a joint patent with UNAM and the Autonomous University of Morelos State for a medicine derived from amphotericin, a powerful mycotic that can be used as a last resort for infections but with a high mortality rate of almost 50 percent. In preclinical trials, the lethality of the new compound we developed in animals was under 5 percent. To make this a commercial medicine, we must conduct clinical trials and even associated with the other two universities the costs are significant: it would cost around US$3million.
Q: What is the importance of health for CINVESTAV?
A: Around 30 percent of our researchers work in health, 25 percent of our published articles are in health and the area is allocated around 30 percent of the budget. However, the impact on human resources is greater: around 42 percent of our students work in health. We may have 15-20 new admissions every year in our physics department but around 100 in molecular biology and we are turning 70-80 percent of applicants away.
We have a National Laboratory for Genomics and Biodiversity (Langebio) at CINVESTAV on our Irapuato campus. Our genome sequencing capabilities are the largest in Latin America. We created this laboratory between 2005 and 2015 and we were the first group worldwide to sequence the genome of corn. In Monterrey, there is a group working in biomedical physics and engineering to design medical devices. They are working on a new x-ray tomography machine that complements imagenology techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.