A Nobel Prize and the Rise of Modern Science in Venezuela

A Venezuelan in the research team of the most recent Nobel Prize in Medicine winner brought to mind the story of Baruj Benacerraf, the only Venezuelan who has received the price. Saying Benacerraf’s was a triumph for Venezuelan science is inaccurate, but it did help cement the somewhat successful process to make science a serious discipline in the country.

Photo: retrieved

On October 1, it was announced that Tasuku Honjo and James P. Allison jointly received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work studying a potential form of therapy against cancer, based on blocking the inhibitory response that the immune system develops against some tumors. Shortly after, the news echoed in Venezuela, as one of the lead researchers in Allison’s Houston-based team is Dr. Luis Miguel Vence, a 45-year-old Venezuelan scientist.

A small joy for a country in desperate need of good news. But what does it really say about Venezuelan scientific institutions?

Vence was born and raised in Caracas, and said in an interview that a painting of the Ávila hangs on his living room wall. He left Venezuela in 1990, first to Israel and then, backed by one of the then prestigious Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho scholarships, to France and the U.S. After studying in Boston and Dallas, he ended up in University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center in 2006, where he became one of the leading scientists in Allison’s team.

His story is somewhat similar to that of Baruj Benacerraf, the only Nobel-awarded Venezuelan, and arguably one of the most important immunologists of the 20th century.

His story is somewhat similar to that of Baruj Benacerraf, the only Nobel-awarded Venezuelan, and arguably one of the most important immunologists of the 20th century.

Benacerraf was born on October 29, 1920 in Caracas. His mother was Algerian and his father was a textile merchant Sephardic Jew from Spanish-Morocco, and one of the founders of Banco Unión, now part of the Banesco banking group.

When he was five years old, the family moved to Paris, but returned to Venezuela in 1939 after World War II erupted. He quickly left to the United States and decided to pursue his medical career, which turned out to be particularly difficult for a Latin American Sephardic Jew in the 1940s in the United States. After being rejected by several medical schools due to his origins, Benacerraf was admitted at Virginia University’s Medical College and graduated in 1945. He began his research career in 1947, after serving in Europe with the U.S. Army Medical Corps. After a brief time in post-war France, where his family had moved, Benacerraf returned to the United States in 1956 and devoted himself entirely to his biomedical research. In 1980, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the genetic regulation of the immunological response. His discoveries are now considered a landmark in the development of modern immunology.

He received the prize as a Venezuelan, even though he had been an American citizen since 1943.

Most (if not all) of Benacerraf’s research was developed and funded in the United States, so his Nobel Prize can’t be considered a triumph for Venezuelan science. Nonetheless, Benacerraf always remained sympathetic about his Venezuelan heritage, stating (in perfect Spanish)  that “he felt deeply Venezuelan” and considered his prize “an honor for Latin America and Venezuela,” during an interview with El Nacional in 1980.

Although his impact on Venezuelan science was limited, after winning the Nobel Prize, Benacerraf helped develop the still incipient studies of Genetics and Immunology in the country, visiting Maracaibo in 1983 as speaker in the VI Latin American and First Venezuelan Congress of Genetics, and being named an honorary member of the Venezuelan Society of Medicine History.

His Nobel Prize also put Venezuela in the spotlight of the scientific community.

His Nobel Prize also put Venezuela in the spotlight of the scientific community, boosting a process that had started several years before by Humberto Fernández Morán and Marcel Roche, who by the time had turned Venezuela into one of the most scientifically promising countries in Latin America.

Fernández Morán was a Maracaibo-born, medical doctor graduated with honors from the University of Munich with extensive training in Neurology, Biophysics and Molecular Biology. After spending ten years studying throughout Europe, he returned to Venezuela in 1954, where he convinced President Marcos Pérez Jiménez of creating a modern scientific center in Venezuela that could compete with those in Europe and the United States.

With Pérez Jiménez’s support, and a $50 million budget, Fernández Morán founded the Venezuelan Institute of Neurology and Brain Research (IVNIC for its Spanish acronym). The institute was unique in Latin America, as it had the first nuclear reactor of the region and state of the art electron microscope technology. It was solely devoted to highly specialized neuroscientific research.

Fernández Morán’s close ties with Pérez Jiménez would prove costly, as he was forced into exile after the events of January 1958, just nine days after being named Education Minister. He continued his career at Harvard University, eventually being appointed by NASA as part of the scientific team behind the Apollo missions. Years later, he would visit Venezuela as a speaker in several international congresses.

With Fernández Morán out of the country, someone had to take care of the now headless IVNIC and Marcel Roche was designed by the new Health Minister to do so. Roche, a Caracas-born, John Hopkins University graduate endocrinologist and nuclear medicine physician, had founded in 1952 the Institute of Medical Investigations Luis Roche Foundation (IIMFLR for its Spanish acronym), a private organization that counted with 35 scientists specialized in physiology, chemistry and biomedical research. In 1959, he reorganized the IVNIC into a multidisciplinary institute doing research in the fields of biology, physics, and mathematics, renaming it Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC for its Spanish acronym).  The IVIC quickly became the most important research center in Venezuela with a team of over 50 people, many of them foreigners.

During the following years, science faculties would be created at Venezuela’s largest universities: Universidad Central de Venezuela in 1958 and Universidad de los Andes in 1969. One year later, in 1970 the strongly technology and science-oriented Universidad Simón Bolívar, was founded. During this time, research facilities bloomed all around Venezuelan universities, most of their scientific production was aimed at developing a capable personnel to exploit the recently nationalized oil industry.

The Venezuelan scientific community also organized and gained influence inside the Venezuelan government.

The Venezuelan scientific community also organized and gained influence inside the Venezuelan government, prompting the creation of several grants and funding systems that allowed many scientists to pursue new research lines, such as the aforementioned Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho scholarships that gave many the opportunity to be trained in top universities around the world. Venezuelan scientists also co-published works with world-renowned researchers from the U.S. and Europe.  Probably the most famous case of success during this time is that of Jacinto Convit, a very talented man whose work has been greatly overestimated, but who received the Prince of Asturias Prize in 1987 and was nominated for the Nobel one year later.

Despite these efforts, the economic problems that started hitting Venezuela in the late 80s, along with the incapacity to develop a strong privately-funded market for science development and commercialization, limited further scientific research in the country during the 90s. After a brief resurgence fueled by the high price of oil during Chávez’s first years, scientific production in Venezuela is now in free fall, the country ranks well below countries like Colombia or Cuba in most scientific production indexes, and alarmingly, producing less scientific material every year.

Still, most of the infrastructure built in the 60s and 70s is still there, badly outdated, but recoverable, and remarkably,  many very talented scientists are still here.

Although shocking, this is hardly surprising. In a country where most people can’t even get three meals a day, it’s virtually impossible to find money to keep research labs going. Empty and vandalized institutes are now the norm in most universities, the IVIC is now controlled by partisan directors who force employees to participate in Maduro’s sham elections, and hundreds of talented researchers have left the country. Still, most of the infrastructure built in the 60s and 70s is still there, badly outdated, but recoverable, and remarkably,  many very talented scientists are still here and they make huge efforts to keep producing valuable information even in the middle of the meltdown. From ULA’s immunology lab, which produces and sells hard-to-find diagnosis kits to self-fund its unique HIV and malaria research lines; to the UCV’s Tropical Medicine Institute that even after being robbed 71 times in the last four years, still managed to pull a scientific congress last July. 

Venezuelan institutions certainly had nothing to do with Dr.Benacerraf’s Nobel Prize or Dr. Vence’s remarkable research line, but they do their best to keep science alive in an extremely adverse environment.

Hopefully, one day the country will be able to offer scientists as talented as them an opportunity to fully express their potential. Until then, their triumphs are, at the very least, a reminder that Venezuelans can be much more than the mindless zombies the government wants us to be, and to me that’s already something to celebrate.

Juan Carlos Gabaldón

Medical doctor from Merida, currently studying Medical Parasitology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine