Raúl Rabadán, deciphering patterns of life

We live in a world full of viruses. We breathe them, we touch them, we eat them. Fortunately, the vast majority do not have the ability to generate an infection. However, some of these microorganisms that infect neighboring animal species, such as cattle, sometimes acquire mutations that suddenly allow them to successfully cross over to humans. And this, in a globalized world haunted by the climate crisis, opens the door to dreaded pandemics. We suffer from covid, monkeypox or HIV, and recently we experienced it with swine flu or avian flu.

“Understanding what is happening, why certain viruses acquire during mutation changes in their genome that allow them to effectively infect humans is essential if we want to prevent or, at least, prepare ourselves to face future pandemics” , says Raúl Rabadán (Madrid, 1974).

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The clinical trial involved 12 children aged 3 to 18 years.

“The big question is how the human mind is able to make such precise models of the universe”

This theoretical physicist is the director of the mathematical genomics program at Columbia University, where he leads a multidisciplinary research team, in which mathematicians, physicists, biologists, computer scientists, engineers, doctors, work side by side to develop predictive models that allow a better understanding of the mechanisms by which viruses evolve and predict which ones will be able to infect people in the future.

“The challenge is no longer so much to obtain the data, but to extract knowledge from it in order to trace patterns of behavior,” said Rabadán, who spoke about genomics and covid at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – National Supercomputing Center ( BSC-CNS), invited by the Department of Life Sciences.

Understanding how things work, the world, is something that has obsessed him since he was a child. He remembers that he spent the day making formulas to understand how an object fell or why such and such a phenomenon occurred. “The big question that continues to concern me is how the human mind is able to make such precise models of the universe,” he admits. In fact, it was this restlessness that prompted him to study theoretical physics. After obtaining his doctorate at the Autonomous University of Madrid, he went to CERN, in Geneva (Switzerland), to study the most elementary particles; and from there he flew to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University (USA), a kind of ivory tower through which the most brilliant minds of 20th century theoretical physics have passed: like Albert Einstein, who was its first director, or Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb.

“I landed there in 2003, just when they had just created a new institute for systems biology, and I was fascinated by the possibility of being able to mathematically model biological processes, such as the appearance of tumors and their evolution. “, he says. It was a time when genomics was expanding, huge amounts of quality data were beginning to be generated, which paved the way for the extraction of new knowledge.

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“The virus and cancer have similar evolutionary processes”

“Viruses and cancer have similar evolutionary processes,” says the Madrid physicist, also head of the Center for Topology of Cancer Evolution and Heterogeneity at the US National Cancer Institute.

“Many discoveries about cancer have been made from the study of viruses, because they capture the essence of many biological processes,” Rabadán said.

In fact, there is an association between viruses and tumors: 20% of cancers are associated with a pathogen, such as Epstein-Barr or the human papillomavirus. In some regions of the planet, this relationship is closer, such as in equatorial Africa, where the prevalence of Burkitt’s lymphoma is higher. Or in Japan and Korea, where they have a type of tumor, NK lymphoma, very rare in the rest of the world and linked to Epstein-Barr.

Even our genome is a cemetery of viruses, some of which behave like real zombies, sometimes activated, especially in cancerous processes.

“I want to understand why and how tumors appear and evolve in some people, whether or not they respond to therapy. We have to find the diagrams which make it possible to explain these evolutionary processes, so that the impact of our research is much more direct”, sums up this theoretical physicist.

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