Emilio Diez-Monedero, Ph.D., has experienced more than 30 years of progress in the scientific community and heralds its continuing evolution. He eagerly anticipates serving as a member of the new SLAS Europe Council to expand the Society's value and impact across the continent.
SLAS Europe Council member Diez experiences a sense of awe when he discusses the interaction between biomedical scientists, engineers, chemists and physicists who support research efforts today. "We take this collaboration for granted, but it was not that common 20 years ago," he says. Diez credits the founders of the organizations that became SLAS for this progress in unity.
"It is important to acknowledge those who decided that a society such as this was needed all those years ago," he continues. "That decision had a great impact in helping standardization of lab equipment and supplies and the collaborations that developed."
Diez, who is vice president and site leader of the Molecular Discovery Research (MDR) Center for GlaxoSmithKline in Tres Cantos, Madrid, Spain, has held many positions within the Society since the early days of his involvement. From making poster and podium presentations to chairing sessions and reviewing seminar proposals, Diez' role evolved to include terms with the board of directors, SLAS International Advisory Committee and the Journal of Biomolecular Screening (JBS) Editorial Board. He notes that he has traveled the world to attend just about every SLAS Annual Conference and Exhibition since 1992. "I have only missed a few!" he says.
His current appointment with the Society hits closer to home – the launch of the SLAS Europe Council to which the SLAS Board of Directors recently appointed Diez and seven others. Diez will serve a three-year term that began officially on January 1, 2014. With the launch of the SLAS Europe Council, the Society is deploying a new leadership model that activates three hands-on regional leadership councils (Europe, Asia, Americas) overseen by one executive board of directors.
"It's gradual, controlled growth we hope to achieve in this part of the world," explains Diez, who hopes to influence a renewed sense of unity for SLAS members in Europe. The SLAS Europe Council will use first-hand knowledge of the similarities and differences between related but distinct scientific communities to successfully implement the SLAS Five-Year Business Plan for Europe. To put the plan in motion, SLAS opened the Society's European office in Brussels, Belgium in August of this year, and partnered closely with the European Laboratory Robotics Interest Group (ELRIG) on their 2013 conference held in Manchester, England, as well as with the MipTec 2013 Conference and Exhibition held in Basel, Switzerland.
In late 2012, SLAS commissioned a comprehensive study of current and potential SLAS members throughout Europe. The results were encouraging, revealing that regular members regard SLAS very highly and are eager to become more involved on a regional basis. Even more encouraging was a presentation about SLAS Europe that Diez and the SLAS professional team offered to the Fifth Spanish Drug Discovery Network (SDDN) meeting in Valencia, Spain in October.
"The presentation was well received and raised interest with regard to potential collaborations with the SDDN in general and for its 2014 meeting in Madrid in particular," Diez notes, adding that the presentation was followed by a meeting with key members of the SDDN.
"SLAS has had a lot to do with what became a major discipline in modern drug discovery – the development of high-throughput screening (HTS) and associated technologies," Diez explains. "Being a part of the Society of Biomolecular Screening (SBS) and SLAS from the very beginning allowed me to have first-hand information and access to key players in the evolution of this discipline and the Society," Diez comments, excited that SLAS is now working harder than ever to ensure these opportunities extend to members of the life sciences R&D community in Europe.
Before all the years of research science, presentations and publishing papers, however, there was a child fascinated with what made the "things" in the world work. Diez, from his earliest memories, was seeking scientific breakthroughs – both large and small. "Anything! Small appliances, engines. I wanted to know how everything worked, but in particular I was always amazed by the magic of medicines. Once I learned later in my education that you could transform materials by chemical reactions and that this was the basis of many drugs, I wanted to become a chemist," he explains with enthusiasm.
He was fortunate to have many good teachers during his educational journey, but Diez recalls a certain biology teacher during his last year before attending university who introduced him to biochemistry. "It was that year, when I was 16, that I decided I wanted to focus my career in biomedical research," he says.
Jump ahead to the fourth year of his B.Sc. in chemistry at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM). Diez worked in a small research laboratory at the San Carlos University Hospital in Madrid that was co-directed by a chemistry professor, Dr. Angel Martin Municio, and a medical pathology professor, Dr. Amador Schuller. This laboratory launched Diez' research career and later served as home base for the completion of his Ph.D. and his work as an assistant professor for two years.
"During this period in Spain, I focused on the alterations in lipid metabolism in various pathological conditions, with special emphasis in the then emerging field of lipid-mediated signal transduction," he explains. He helped author several papers that were published on the subject. A couple of examples were "Regulation of Arachidonic Acid Release in Mouse Peritoneal Macrophages. The Role of Extracellular Calcium and Protein Kinase C;" "Phospholipase A2 Activity in Resting and Activated Human Neutrophils. Substrate Specificity, pH Dependence, and Subcellular Localization;" and "Acetylated Low-Density Lipoproteins Promote the Release and Metabolism of Arachidonic Acid by Murine Macrophages."
When a post-doctoral position in the U.S. opened up in 1988, Diez and his wife, Isabel, were excited. The job was an associate scientist post with the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) in Worcester, MA. In the laboratory of Dr. Gary Johnson, Diez expanded his studies with research on the effect on signal transduction pathways when manipulating the load and function of G-proteins within cells. It is a topic he addressed in an article entitled: "Expression of a G-Protein Mutant Which Inhibits Thrombin and Purinergic Receptor Activation of Phospholipase A2."
While the work in the lab was fulfilling, life outside the lab was more challenging than the couple first anticipated, Diez explains. "Before coming to the U.S., I studied in a school where French was the second language, but English was new to me. Obviously the decision to move abroad completely changed our lives, but not without pain, especially during the first few months here," he says. But some challenges offered great enrichment to the young scientist.
"My experience in the U.S. opened my eyes to many things," Diez says. "One was the outgoing eagerness of American students at the university who asked questions. I was impressed by their openness. They were not shy about asking questions in meetings or symposiums, particularly when compared with students from other places, at that time. For the U.S. students, it was a matter of being yourself and asking. I guess it has to do with the education system where they are encouraged to participate in discussions. The end result was a more open and healthy scientific debate. I am not sure that it is like that today, but certainly this was something that caught my attention when I moved to the U.S.," he continues, adding that exposure to this kind of openness was critical for his career. "I would not be who I am today without having spent a few years in the U.S.," he says.
When a career move to industry beckoned later that year, Diez joined the Department of Immunology and Cellular Sciences at SmithKline Beecham (SB) in Philadelphia as a postdoctoral research associate. "During the first few years at SB, my work focused on studying phospholipids metabolizing enzymes, and their potential role in disease," he comments. His primary contribution was the identification, purification and biochemical characterization of the arachidonic, acid-specific phospholipase, A2. During this time, he published many more papers on the important role A2 plays in the generation of lipid metabolites involved in inflammatory responses.
After four years at SB, another opportunity came along that Diez didn't anticipate: returning to Spain to establish a molecular pharmacology screening group in SB's brand new research facility near Madrid (Tres Cantos).
"This center was dedicated to the discovery of new drugs from microbial origin," he explains. "During the next few years I progressively acquired increasing responsibility and experience in the management of multidisciplinary groups of scientists and technologists. In 1999, internal research in natural products was stopped, and the facility became the European center for HTS for SB." In 2000, the company merged with U.K.-based Glaxo Wellcome to form GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
Diez currently directs the Molecular Discovery Research (MDR) group at Tres Cantos, which plays an important role in the early stages of drug discovery at GSK. MDR's specialty is in vitro pharmacological screening and collaborating with multiple GSK therapeutic area teams around the world. The site is a state-of-the-art facility with regard to automation, miniaturization and detection systems for in vitro studies.
More recently Diez has found increased involvement in external collaborations, especially within Diseases of the Developing World, a group co-located with his team in Tres Cantos. The unit focuses primarily on malaria, tuberculosis and kinetoplatid diseases (Chagas disease, leishmaniasis and sleeping sickness). A specialist R&D facility offers lab space to external scientists and academics who are also working on new ways to think about neglected diseases of the developing world, including SLAS member Julio Martin, Ph.D., who is serving as a guest editor for an upcoming special issue of JBS on "Novel Therapeutic Approaches for Neglected Infectious Diseases."
Diez believes that the progress of his career and the path it has taken is an asset to the work he does now. "Overall, the decisions I made helped me to have a very broad perspective on the role of research in society," he observes. "It has transformed my ideas and knowledge into solutions that are applicable to the search of new pharmacological agents and eventually medicines."
While his work schedule is packed and the research is fulfilling, Diez finds equal pleasure in stepping away from research and hitting the trail – literally. Several days a week Diez runs or walks with Isabel and the couple's Labrador retrievers, Neo and Kira. Diez and Isabel, a professor of research at the Spanish National Biotechnology Center, met while they were both students at UCM. Because her career also is demanding, the couple enjoys spending time together away from the rigors of work.
"Taking walks is our time to talk and share the day," he says noting that the shared love of research, while a bond, is not the center of their discussions. When busy schedules in the family mesh, the couple also enjoys preparing and eating dinner with their two sons. Diez explains that clearing out time for family is essential as his sons get older and their lives become busier. His son, Daniel, 22, is currently studying archaeology in England, while younger son, Jaime, 18, is in his second year of material science engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid. Diez encourages his children's interest in science and supports their search for career paths in the profession.
While being with family and taking in movies, theater and shared travels are activities he prizes, Diez also relishes the occasional free weekend. He tells stories about playing basketball with friends, but notes that "this is becoming more difficult every time, so I am starting to shift to less aggressive activities like trekking through the mountains near Madrid. Recently I've gotten into sailing and scuba diving, activities for which I try to find time whenever possible," he adds.
Diez is philosophical about decisions he has made in his life. "Most of the time, making a choice means that you have to leave something behind," he observes. "That obviously applies to your professional career as well, and it is very difficult to speculate about what would have been had the choices been different. This being said, I am happy about the choices I made. They allowed me to know both academic and industrial research not only in my home country, but also around the world."
To others who aspire to successful careers in biomedical research, Diez comments that there are many ways to become a good scientist. "People with very different personal characteristics can succeed in science. However, there are two aspects that I consider very important. One is developing a continuous interest in doing things better and searching for novel ideas. This includes listening to what others have to say about your work, regardless of whether or not you like what you hear," he states.
"The other piece of advice is to remember to stop often and reflect on how you are doing," Diez concludes. "The first will guarantee that you are always alert and aware of what is going on in your field of expertise and not become complacent. The second will help you to be critical with yourself and try to develop new ways of addressing your limitations."
January 27, 2014