Javier Montenegro (Vigo, 1979) is one of the most brilliant chemists of his generation. He is one of the few researchers worldwide that has achieved two of the most prestigious international recognitions that exist in science: a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) and a Research Grant from the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP).
Recently, he has received one of the five yearly prizes that the Spanish Royal Society of Chemistry grants to recognize the repercussion showed by young chemists in the beginning of their careers.
These awards are the result of a career marked by dedication and effort. After completing his education in some of the most prestigious research centers in his field (University of Cambridge, University of Geneva, and Scripps Research Institute), Javier went back to Santiago de Compostela to lead its own group in the Singular Research Center in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Materials (CiQUS).
His lines of work? Supramolecular synthetic chemistry applied to chemical and synthetic biology and to the discovery of new materials. A path that has driven him to work, for instance, in one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century: the genetic edition technique CRISPR.
So, no one better that Javier to talk about research and innovation in Chemistry and the importance of university-enterprise collaborations to bring new advancements and technologies to is practical application in the industry.
In your group you work with the technology of the moment that is poised to revolutionize Chemistry, Biology, and Medicine: CRISPR. Before beginning, Javier, what is CRISPR and how does your project use it?
CRISPR is a genic engineering technique that can be applied to cure diseases and correct biological malfunctions. It is able to act on genes by activating them, inhibiting them, or editing them to fix diseases and biological system failures.
What we have designed is a small peptide that is able to transport a big protein and deliver it inside the cell to perform CRISPR/Cas9 gene edition. The Royal Society has done this video that explains our project:
It is a technology that entails certain controversy, as all genetic-related. What do we have to consider when dealing with CRISPR?
CRISPR’s ethical considerations will always be there. That is why it is so important to have expert committees to regulate and assemble it very carefully.
But it is undeniable that it is a tool that can be tremendously beneficial. We need time but once this technology has been adapted to a particular need and it has been proved safe, this great scientific advancement must reach the people and improve our lives.
Javier, would you say your group is disruptive? That the advancements you work on are going to make a significant change?
Yes, totally. We do outside-of-the-box research. We like to do things differently. And that is why the industry is interested in us, because we are able to target unexpected projects that can be useful for them.
The information has to flow in two directions (Academia/Industry) and it is important that the industry comes to the university seeking our collaboration to solve their problems.
Perhaps we should adopt the American or German enterprise-university collaboration models.
Collaboration with enterprises is fundamental. They have to communicate with universities and make us see and understand the problems they have and how can we solve them.
Because we may have a novel and advanced technology, but if we do not come to understand the applications in the industry, it will not be of use.
And precisely this has just happened to us. A company contacted us because they needed our molecules to do a particular job. However, they needed these molecules as a powder or as a “capsule”. We have recently confirmed that we do not have any problem to do so and we have just signed a collaboration agreement with them so we can send them samples of our molecules to try our technology with their particular problem.
Which challenges do you face in your job?
We face many scientific and technical challenges. However, other permanent struggle is funding, which is probably one of the most important challenges for any research lab.
Funding is a window in science. If funding stops in science it means the end of projects that may end winning a Nobel Prize, as Francis Mojica, who discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 technology. With more money he may have come even further and have developed this technology here in Spain.
We are working long hours because it is our vocation in spite of sacrificing our family, friends and live, because we believe in it and because it is worth it. Society, and thus politics, must recognize it and realize science improves their lives and that every euro invested in research generates three. It is a long-term investment that needs time and perspective.
What do you think are the trends in the Chemistry Industry for the next years?
Without a doubt, what is going to shape the coming years is biological chemistry and molecular materials (those that can be modified by chemistry and applicable to the industry). In short, using Chemistry to understand how biology works and modify it, and to create more robust and better materials while reducing production costs.
Chemistry has this great power of discovering systems that dramatically cut down costs, so technology can be made accessible to all people.
You and your group have received numerous awards. Even two of your youngest members, Iván Gallego and Alicia Rioboo, have already received important awards. What is it that you are doing so well and so differently to have so much recognition?
We put a lot of effort into training our students so they are on an equal footing and can compete against students from the MIT, Harvard and the best centers of the world. Iván and Alicia are the best students of their particular chemistry promotions and we are very proud they decided to join our group.
We try to give our students an excellent training program so they are well prepared when they leave us. Our thesis projects are multidisciplinary: our students usually face their projects alone, have to organize their work, learn a myriad of experimental techniques, present in English in seminars, I always encourage them to visit labs abroad… and it is working because they are fully prepared to move ahead their carriers. I get an excellent feedback from their supervisors when they spend some time abroad in the best labs worldwide.