‘We will be dying from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in a decade’

Scientist Edith Heard heads the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. She talks to EL PAÍS about her unexpected academic path, women in science and the threat of a new pandemic

Edith Heard
Edith Heard, the director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, in Madrid before the interview.Kike Para
Manuel Ansede

Edith Heard, 56, was born and raised in London, but when she started school aged five she could not speak “a word of English” after hearing Greek at home – her mother’s native language. She arrived at Cambridge University aged 18, marveling at the enormity of the cosmos and determined to become an astronomer. A single catch-up biology book – a subject she had never studied – would change her path in life. “I discovered everything for the first time. I saw amazing images of cells. That was my eureka moment and I realized that I didn’t want to study physics, but biology. I made the decision in 30 seconds, literally.”

Heard has more than made up for lost time. She is now the director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), which boasts 1,800 workers and sites in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The lab opened a new facility in Barcelona in 2017, focused on the development and functioning of organs.

Heard’s specialty is epigenetics, the study of how your lifestyle and environment can change how your genes are expressed. If DNA is a sequence of letters with instructions for the functioning of a living being, epigenetic changes modify those messages and can cause illnesses, such as cancer. Heard’s goal is to learn how to manage these triggered genes with drugs, to reverse the course of the diseases. The geneticist, who has just obtained French nationality after living half her life in Paris, visited Madrid recently to meet with Minister of Science Pedro Duque, and to study future collaborations.

Question. You have said that your intention is for the EMBL to provoke a “wow!” in citizens, in the same way that the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) does with discoveries such as the Higgs boson.

Answer. That’s what I want. And I think it already happens in some cases. EMBL participated in the Tara Oceans project, an expedition to discover biodiversity in the ocean. That provoked a “wow.” Two years ago they published the discovery of 200,000 new viruses in the ocean, at the North Pole. Why is the North Pole a hotbed of viral diversity? I don’t know. That’s a “wow” for me!

Q. You have headed the EMBL since 2019. Before the coronavirus pandemic, you said you wanted to brainstorm with your top scientists to identify the big questions that need to be answered. What are they?

A. I organized the brainstorms as soon as I arrived. It’s very ironic, because I made a presentation containing a slide about emerging pandemics. I said that they often occur in areas where human action destroys ecosystems.

Q. Just before the pandemic?

A. Two years ago, before the pandemic. We already knew there was a risk, because we knew about other viruses like SARS. We needed molecular tools to understand what was going on. We knew that these issues were very urgent. And then the pandemic came. I promise I’m not Cassandra [a figure from Greek mythology with the gift of prophecy]! Those are the kinds of big questions we want to understand: how pandemics emerge. Another question, for example, is why antibiotic resistance is growing so fast. It’s not just in hospitals; you can see antibiotic resistance in bacteria in the ocean. We want to understand why it is happening.

Q. What might be the reason?

A. We don’t know, that’s the big question. If we could understand what is happening, we could prevent it. Many companies stopped developing antibiotics, so now there are only a few drugs. That will be the next big killer. In 10 to 20 years we will be dying from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, which we will no longer be able to treat. In the last 100 years, we have doubled our life expectancy, thanks to things like antibiotics and vaccines. If we don’t do something, in 20 years the antibiotics that exist today will not be able to treat the infections we have. It’s going to be the next pandemic. The new EMBL program covers these issues.

Q. In your lab profile picture we see a three-colored cat: white, black and orange. What does that have to do with your specialty?

A. For centuries, people in the countryside have known that tricolor cats are usually female. The reason is that they have two X chromosomes, because they are female, and there is a gene on the X chromosome that can produce either a black or orange color. If you have the black version of the gene on one X chromosome and you have the orange version on the other X chromosome, the coat color will depend on which chromosome is expressed. On other chromosomes, both copies [inherited from mother and father] are expressed, but that doesn’t happen with the two X chromosomes in females: one is turned off and the other is active. Sometimes it’s your mother’s X chromosome and sometimes it’s your father’s X chromosome, so each cell expresses a different X chromosome during embryonic development. Sometimes it’s orange and sometimes it’s black. You have a mosaic, which is what we see in females. You will never see it in males, because they only have one X chromosome, which is either orange or black. The white is something else, that’s due to lack of melanocytes.

Q. When you won last year’s L’Oréal-UNESCO Prize for Women in Science, you said there is hope that epigenetic drugs could one day treat some cancers and other diseases. What is an epigenetic drug and when will they be available?

A. Genes are made of DNA. With cancer, if you have a mutation that affects the DNA, that’s it, you can’t undo it. But now we know that some changes are not at the DNA level, but at an epigenetic level: chemical modifications of the DNA. We now know that in cancer there are big epigenetic changes, not just genetic. And these epigenetic changes are very interesting, because you can undo them. An epigenetic drug is a drug that modifies these epigenetic changes. Some already exist, such as decitabine, which is used for acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. A gene can cause cancer by being silenced or hyperactivated. Sometimes it is on when it should be off, or vice versa. This switch can be epigenetic and you can try to flip it with an epigenetic drug. The problem is that in the field of solid tumors, such as lung cancer, less progress has been made. Epigenetic drugs are already being used, but a few years ago I thought that everything would go much faster.

Q. You have often said that science is sexist, but you also stated in an interview that you are not a feminist. What do you mean?

A. A card-carrying feminist participates in protests and I have never done so. However, when I look back on my life I have always defended women. When I was in college and we started physics classes, I was one of only two women in the classroom. I realized that science is sexist. It’s not even a criticism; it’s a reality. That’s how society works and it’s changing. But physics, for example, is dominated by men. Biology, less so. I’m not a card-carrying feminist, but I care about human rights, equality and diversity. And the position of women in science is something I care deeply about. It’s one of the reasons I took the position. I thought that accepting becoming the first woman to lead EMBL was important to show other women that it is possible. I don’t mean being a role model, but just being an example that it is possible. I am not a card-carrying feminist, but I am an advocate for equal rights.

Q. That’s what the word “feminism” means in Spanish. French virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi also stated, in an interview with EL PAÍS in 2017, that she was not a feminist. Perhaps in France, the concept of feminism is more political.

A. There may be something cultural, yes. I think what bothers me a little bit is that I have a daughter and a son and I see that women can be very successful and, at the same time, life can be hard for boys. I’m a feminist, but I care about boys being successful too. Most of the men I know are also feminists.

Q. You and your colleagues founded the National Program for the Urgent Aid and Reception of Scientists in Exile, a French organization helping researchers from countries in crisis or at war.

A. Yes, it was launched a few years ago, when many people were displaced by the war in Syria. We are talking about people just like me, but who from one day to the next have to pack their bags, lose decades of scientific work because their institutions have been bombed, and leave with their families without knowing where they will end up. My daughter studied International Relations and was learning Arabic. On weekends she had [language] exchanges with refugees who came to France and wanted to learn French. The students were teaching French to the refugees and they needed more people, so I signed up. I met some of these young people, and people my age. That really made me aware that these people had lost everything and needed help.

Q. What did you do?

A. With my colleagues at the Collège de France [an institution where Heard was a professor] we approached the French government and they welcomed the idea. Within a few months, we had funding and the Foreign Affairs and Interior ministries were ready to launch the program. At first, the researchers were not only from Syria, but also from other countries, such as Turkey and Libya. In some cases, the scientists had only signed a petition and were then told to leave the country. We would receive applications from these people and we had to evaluate them not just on their science, but the severity of the emergency. You would read their CVs and realize that their whole life was about to be destroyed. These are people with incredible stories. One woman was a university dean in a North African country, but the new president was a religious extremist and decided that women should not work in these positions, so she denounced the situation and had to flee overnight. It’s very exciting to be part of this. It makes you realize how important and fragile democracy and freedom are: we can lose everything overnight.

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