It all started when he was at junior high. A teacher got him interested in science and there was no going back. He’s now one of the most important biotechnologists in the world.
It came about due to serendipity. When Marco Rito Palomares applied in 1993 to study a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham in the UK, he was thinking about working in the production of enzymes, vaccines, or pharmaceuticals. The group focusing on those areas was full.
Out of the blue, he received a letter of acceptance from another group whose focus was the recovery and purification of bioproducts: removing all the water and pollutants. He hadn’t even considered doing that and ended up specializing in it. “It was fantastic, because I had to work on liquid-liquid extraction of proteins with the aqueous two-phase system technique,” he recalls in an interview with Tec Review. “It was a technique that was just coming into being.”
He became a global pioneer. When he returned to Mexico, he began to weave international collaboration networks, continued working on the novel technique, and joined Tec de Monterrey, where he developed the program for the degree in Biotechnology Engineering and took part in the creation of the Femsa Biotechnology Center.
With around 150 publications in scientific journals, this Mexican leads the field in the recovery and purification of bioproducts. He took part in the search for a vaccine against cervical cancer and is now working on detecting diabetes with just a single sample of saliva.
Rito Palomares is the National Director of Research, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at TecSalud, Tec de Monterrey’s health system. He’s convinced that biotechnology and health have a promising future. “What you develop in biotechnology are pharmaceuticals, medicines, candidate vaccines, which will eventually have an impact on society, on human beings,” he says.
Which of your investigations has had the most impact?
It’s hard to pick out just one. Each investigation is more challenging and closer to being applied to human beings. My first investigations were for creating knowledge and the fundamentals for designing processes, but we created process candidates for different techniques.
Eight years ago, we began working on purifying pharmaceuticals modified with polymers. We then did a lot of work on stem cells and currently have a project for early detection of diabetes through a single sample of saliva. Those who know me say it’s my pet project.
How do you move from knowledge to application?
Not necessarily everything you develop stays the course. From a scientific perspective, what you’re looking for initially is the creation of knowledge, and that’s reflected in the publication of articles in the most prestigious journals. Most of us scientists make it there, and that’s the goal.
Personally, I must have about 150 scientific publications, but I’ve only got 10 patents and maybe a couple of projects with the potential for starting a company. This is more less indicative of the funnel effect.
When you make a little more progress towards the right-hand side of the story, people with a different profile get involved: those from finance or business. Not all scientists have that, nor should they, but that’s when you have to form different teams.
How’s Mexico doing in the area of biotechnology?
At national level, the leading institutions I see are the UNAM, IPN, and obviously the Tec.
Biotechnology is a very broad term. I feel that we have greater presence in certain areas. One of my colleagues says, “There are only three groups in the world using the technique you’ve been working on: there’s one in Chile, another in Portugal-Germany, and yours.” From that perspective, what we’ve done over the past 20 to 25 years is establish ourselves as world leader. If someone mentions the aqueous two-phase system, our group is a world leader.
What have you been focusing on over those 20 years to become a world leader?
On using the technique and on innovating. We’re always looking for something new that no-one else is doing.
We started with proteins. Then it was modified proteins, stem cells, different techniques, and then modification of current techniques. The fundamental challenge for me is not becoming obsolete. Every three to four years, I question what I’m doing and see what’s coming down the road.
We’ve really been successful over these years because the techniques or strategies we bring to the scientific sphere have been imitated by other groups around the world over time.
Which areas of biotechnology do you think have the greatest potential in future?
The biotechnology that’s going to have an impact is in the area of health. The Tec has what it takes to create it and develop it in a very high impact way.
Many developments are going to go in the direction of health. One clear example is the problem of the pandemic we’re experiencing, which is really having an impact on health, but biotechnological development is needed for that.
Health is a very broad sector. Where should development be focused?
Tec Salud and the School of Medicine have defined four initial areas: neuro, cancer, metabolic diseases, and cardio. Of these, I’d say that we’re doing very well on two of them and there’s still work to be done on the other two.
They’re still very big areas. That’s the challenge. For instance, there are thousands of groups working on cancer, but how am I going to stand out? Early detection or novel strategies? And it’s the same for the other areas.
Health is a broad area. We have to see where we want to make an impact: not so much on treatment any more, we should pay attention to early detection and prevention.
Are people working on that at national level?
I’m not so sure. I feel we’re still putting significant effort into treatment.
In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, what could or can be done through biotechnology?
Biotechnology follows several strategies, and one of these is early detection. What’s more, it’s still not certain how this virus emerged, but the biosecurity techniques there could have been a bit stronger.
Another thing we could have worked on is anticipating the creation of drugs or vaccines, because it came about when were already facing the problem. Any specialist in biotechnology can tell you that creating a vaccine, even if you have all the resources, isn’t going to happen in a year. And to create a drug, we need to understand how the virus acts.
The vaccine, the drug, and biosecurity are part of biotechnology. But I wouldn’t want the message to be that biotechnology could have prevented it, but that solutions could have been anticipated, not just for this virus, but for many others.
Rito Palamares studied Biochemical Food Engineering in La Paz, Baja California. He then went to the Tec to study a master’s in Chemical Engineering. When he completed his course, Tecnológico de Monterrey admitted him onto a new faculty internationalization program. He went to the University of Birmingham to study his PhD and then to the University of Cambridge as a postdoctoral researcher. “At the Tec, I was able to do research at a world-class level, just as I would have at any of the top universities in the world,” he emphasizes.
He was given the Jubilee Award 2003 by the International Foundation for Science. Tec de Monterrey gave him the Rómulo Garza Award 2002 in recognition of his teaching and research work. At the start of this year, he was designated editor-in-chief of the journal Food and Bioproducts Processing. “This appointment as editor-in-chief is one of the most important, if not the most important one at global level,” emphasizes Rito Palomares.