For Argentine Scientists, Trials in Financing
Noted Researchers Use Various Methods to Protect Projects From Economic Crisis
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
BUENOS AIRES -- A small laboratory here came to prominence last month
when its researchers unveiled a bioartificial
device designed to keep children with liver disease alive long enough to receive an organ transplant.
The project marked another advance for a country steeped in scientific
and medical achievement. But a painful economic
collapse in Argentina, which has long been Latin America's wealthiest and best-educated country, has left scientists struggling
To keep this project alive, hundreds of doctors donated portions of
their salaries, many of which have been sharply reduced
during the economic crisis. The project coordinator routinely used his personal credit cards to buy chemicals and textbooks.
And the lab's biologists and chemists -- who earn a quarter of what their counterparts in the United States make -- chipped in
to cover the bus and subway fares for their research assistants.
"More than ever, the crisis has made science in Argentina an act of
personal sacrifice," said Pablo Argibay, director of the
bioartificial liver project at the Italian Hospital here. "Every time you take money out of your own pocket to keep a project like
this going, you think, 'I'm doing this for science, but also, for my country.' The day we decide to give up on the search for higher
knowledge is the day Argentina admits it has no future. I, for one, am not ready to admit that."
For generations, Argentina shined as a beacon of scientific research
in the developing world. Leading minds here helped
pioneer the heart bypass operation and breakthroughs in immunology and cell regeneration. Argentines are the only Latin
Americans ever to have won the Nobel Prize for science, not once, but three times.
But after a devastating debt default, currency devaluation and worsening
four-year recession, Argentines have found themselves
living through what many are calling "the second Great Depression."
The government has given no grants for scientific projects in six months,
and the economic crisis is causing an alarming brain
drain. Yet there remain many researchers for whom science has become an act of patriotism.
Last month, for instance, Victor Grignaschi, who won Argentina's prestigious
National Medical Award in the 1970s, adapted a
technology first used in Europe to identify traces of fossilized DNA in 110 million-year-old dinosaur bones from Patagonia.
Grignaschi, 85, performed the tests in his kitchen using chemicals donated by local hospitals.
"We may not be the scientific power we once were," Grignaschi said in
the living room of his home in a declining middle-class
neighborhood, "but one does what one can to keep the sciences active in Argentina. It is vital to our future that we not let this
Argentina's scientific achievements date to the early 1900s, when this
sprawling country drew millions of immigrants from
Europe and became one of the world's 10 richest countries.
Buenos Aires was dubbed "The Paris of the South" for its grand architecture
and street cafes, and it developed into the region's
research hub as its universities became world-class centers of learning.
But even before the current crisis, decades of gradual economic and
political decline took their toll on Argentine science. Many
great thinkers moved abroad.
Cesar Milstein, the 1984 Nobel laureate in medicine for his theories
on the immune system, was raised and educated in
Argentina. But he moved to Cambridge, England, to continue his research after a military coup in the 1960s led to the
dismantling of his research center.
Argentines still managed to nurture some of the leading minds in their
fields. But the economic crisis has dramatically sharpened
the challenge. "This is a critical moment for us," said Eduardo Charreau, president of Argentina's National Committee of
Scientific and Technical Research. "Millions of dollars in government grants have been suspended because of the crisis.
Scientific groups are surviving off a few foreign grants or what they're taking from their own pockets. Now we see countries
such as Brazil and Mexico moving ahead of us in research and discovery. . . . But we are doing what we can in the pursuit of
science -- something that has always been a great source of national pride."
One recent afternoon in the research annex of the Italian Hospital,
founded for Italian immigrants in the late 1800s, lab workers
extracted cells from a pig's liver that Argibay had removed hours earlier. They used small tubes donated by a local
pharmaceutical company to condense the cells into a mixture that forms the basis of the new bioartificial liver for children.
Similar projects in the United States have focused on adults. The goal
in Argentina was to tackle a problem common in
developing countries: Children and babies with chronic hepatitis A, an illness linked to unsanitary living conditions, often die
before receiving liver transplants.
The research project began in 1993 but was slowed as government assistance
and private grants dried up after Argentina's
recession began in 1999.
Argibay's peers came to his rescue. The 500 doctors who work at the
hospital volunteered to each give at least 1 percent of
their salaries to help keep alive this and other projects at the hospital's research annex. Argibay, who earns about $2,300 a
month, used his personal credit cards to buy imported chemicals and textbooks, mostly via the Internet. He and several other
doctors and researchers were forced to increase their contributions in January after the devaluation of the peso made imported
supplies more expensive.
"The sacrifice was made because we understood what was at stake: the
lives of children and babies with a serious problem, as
well as the advancement of Argentine science," Argibay said. "We consider both to be noble causes."
The researchers will present their findings at a meeting next month
at the American Society of Artificial Internal Organs in New
York -- a trip Argibay said he will pay for out of his pocket.
But for the researchers, having their results accepted by their peers
is only the beginning of a new phase in their struggle --
applying for foreign grants of about $50,000 a year to take the bioartificial liver into clinical trials.
If the money doesn't come, Argibay said that he is prepared to fund the research himself for as long as he can.
"This project will go on," he said. "We've come too far to let this go now."