Luís Portela – A glimpse into Science
Luis Portela is the chairman of Bial, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the Iberian Peninsula.
A discreet man with an ability to look deeply into other people, he is a gentleman with old-fashioned manners, he always arrives before the scheduled time and insists on paying the bill, despite having been invited to an interview.
In his resume we find titles that don't need to be described to add weight to his presence. He was vice-president of the Serralves Foundation and president of the General Council of the University of Porto, he was decorated Commander of the Order of Merit, and later awarded the Grand Cross. He is also Honorary Professor of the University of Cadiz, in Spain, and of the universities of Porto and Coimbra, in Portugal, in addition to being distinguished with the Neuroscience Award of the Louisiana State University, in the USA. He regularly writes books that turn out to be bestsellers and reveal his connection to areas with a more sensory nature.
He was born on July 28, 1951 in Águas Santas, Porto. He thought about becoming a friar, a Tibetan monk or a doctor; what he really wanted was to be useful to others. So he decided for Medicine, a choice that was not very well seen by his father, António Emílio Portela, who wanted him to study economy or pharmacy so he could work in the company created in 1924 by his grandfather Álvaro Portela. After graduating from the Faculty of Medicine of Porto, he taught Psychophysiology and worked at the São João Hospital. His father died at 50 years of age, when Luis Portela was a 21-year-old student. When the work plan that would take him to Cambridge to do his PhD was agreed, his sense of family spoke louder than his professional passion. He tried to sell his stake in Bial but what actually happened was the opposite; he bought the company and took over as manager and president, leaving behind his passion for medicine and keeping his thirst for research only in his dreams.
Over the years he has been surrounding himself with people he describes as great professionals and who have helped him to put Bial on the level where it is today. He says that he was only able to take the risks he took by investing in the pharmaceutical industry because he works with a strong and increasingly plural team, currently with Portuguese, British, French, German and Italian members. To build up the company's capacity for innovation, Luis Portela imported new technologies and concepts that gave Bial a status similar to that of other renowned foreign multinationals. After consolidating its position in Portugal, it expanded to other markets, namely Africa, Latin America, Spain, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom
The Bial Foundation, chaired by Luis Portela, was created in 1994 in partnership with the Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities. Its purpose is to foster scientific research, from both the physical and the spiritual point of view.
In one of the many interviews he has given, he says that in over 30 years of leadership he has never shouted at anyone, maybe thanks to the 20 years in which he practised karate, or maybe to the inner peace he has been developing over the many years in which he has been perfecting meditation.
Luis Portela was one of the main guests of Beyond Med, an event held at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon. A few days later, he made a point of being present in the last lecture of his friend Mario Simões, a Psychiatry Professor who is now retiring from his position at the Faculty. But it is also within the scope of Bial and of a joint collaboration with another FMUL Professor, Joaquim Ferreira, that we find arguments that bind us to Luis Portela, making it intriguing to know him personally.
We started precisely by talking about a new drug that improves the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, developed under the clinical coordination of Joaquim Ferreira.
We are aware of the research work developed in partnership with Professor Joaquim Ferreira which gave rise to a new drug that brings good news to patients with Parkinson's. Are we witnessing a growth in the number of partnerships between Portuguese researchers and Bial?
Luis Portela: It was with great pride that we welcomed the opportunity to collaborate once again with Professor Joaquim Ferreira, who we regard as a worldwide reference in the area of Parkinson's. It wouldn't make sense for us to collaborate with other countries and not to have a direct collaboration with Portugal. In this case, us wanting to collaborate with him and him accepting that collaboration were two different things, so it was an honour for us when he accepted it. It was also very satisfying to realize that the work we had carried out earlier, whose clinical part he helped complete, had been successful. I believe that we are offering an innovative drug that will bring significant benefits for patients. With regard to collaboration with other people, we've always privileged the Portuguese Academia. We are aware that, despite the fact that we are working with more than one hundred researchers, they come from 10 different European countries; this team is relatively small compared to the research teams of multinational companies which have several hundreds, sometimes thousands, of researchers. That's why we made a point of being involved with the Academia and with research Institutions, most of them connected to universities, which support and assist us. Over the last 25 years we have collaborated with 139 different institutions, not only from Portugal, but also from Europe, the United States, Japan, Australia, because Science is done by networking. When we realize we have weaknesses we build bridges with the Academia. And we didn't just build a bridge, we built a network, fortunately with a number of Portuguese centres, namely from the Universities of Porto, Nova of Lisbon, Coimbra and Beira Interior. Our researchers are at the heart of the projects, but then we have to ask for support to keep going. We evaluate how long it takes and how much it costs and we move forward.
Let's talk about timings; from the time the idea is born before the drug is launched on the market. How many years are we talking about, approximately?
Luis Portela: On average, in Bial and in the pharmaceutical industry in general, it takes between 10 to 15 years from the moment a new molecule is synthesized in our chemical research laboratory until the drug reaches the market. It took us 11 years to launch this drug for Parkinson's disease, which means that we've been able to shorten these periods.
At Beyond Med I heard you talk about the importance of doing research to keep Medicine moving forward. Are medical students aware of the importance of combining research with clinical practice?
Luis Portela: I don't spend much time around young doctors, but what I can say is that over the last two decades it's not been very easy to hire Portuguese doctors to work in research with us.
Why? Because that means that they have to work full-time on research?
Luis Portela: Yes, initially we didn't require that, but as the work develops, our needs are such that we need people working full time. And that's why I invite people, why I challenge young people to come and learn about laboratory research. Now it's not so hard to find Portuguese doctors to work on research, we've been hiring some. In other faculties it's very easy to find people who are available and motivated to work on research and come from pharmacy, biology, chemistry or biochemistry; they finish their PhDs and then they come to pursue their career full-time at Bial. But it has always been more difficult to have this relationship with medical students. It seems to me that many of the young people who chose Medicine obviously dream with treating patients, being useful to others, providing medical services and, probably, they are extremely focused on the clinical career and move away from the possibility of doing research. On the other hand, it also seems to me that, during the degrees, the faculties are not trying to format, or create the conditions for some of these young people to become interested in research. And, apparently, even in the hospital career, research doesn't weight much in the final evaluation.
So they're not being stimulated enough?
Luis Portela: I don't think so, and then health has been obsessively managed from an economic angle by the last governments. They want doctors to see lots of patients, not to waste their time, especially on research. I think that the ministries have been looking at this from a rather unbalanced perspective, which should be counterbalanced by the Ministry of Science by raising young people's awareness of the possibilities of the research career. And we should talk about the many brilliant cases of researchers who have pursued incredible careers, some of them moving on to more commercial areas later on.
On a different note, it's inevitable to mention the Bial Foundation and the growing investment in the areas of Psychophysiology and Parapsychology. Was this investment a "stubbornness" of yours, or is it a natural expansion to new areas of Science?
Luis Portela: It's not so much a stubbornness as it is a passion. When I was 14/15 years old I was contending with essential questions that made me wonder why Humanity, from the point of view of faith, accepts so many and too many things, and that same Humanity, from the point of view of Science, denies the existence of certain phenomena. I found all this very strange and realized that the best we could do was to follow the middle way. Try to separate the wheat from the chaff, studying a phenomenology noted since Antiquity under the rigour of the scientific method, proving what is true, what is a lie, and the extent to which it can be used to the existence and benefit of humanity. I convinced myself that if I became a doctor, I could devote myself to researching those areas. But things took a sharp turn and, with my father's death, I eventually took over Bial. The problem is that I didn't feel the call to become a manager, business didn't interest me. But I had a lot of respect for my grandfather's and my father's work. We were in the 1970s and the company was in a difficult situation. I did try to sell the stake I had inherited from my father, but since I couldn't find any buyers, I decided to buy the majority of the company. In 1979 I was the President of Bial, in over my head in debt.
This meant that I had to leave research and the subjects I wanted to explore behind. At that time I promised myself that if I had any money left and if I received any extra money, I would try to help those who pursued their careers in research. I thought that if one day I could help 6 or 10 researchers, I would already be helping Humanity and being more fruitful. It was with this dream in mind that we created the Bial award for research in 1984. And in 1994 we invited the Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities to join an independent and non-profit organization - the Bial Foundation - that would manage both the prize and the research grants we were creating for younger researchers who still hadn't had many opportunities to stand out individually. Of course I wanted to support Parapsychology and Psychophysiology, but I didn't have the courage to make that proposal.
Luis Portela: I thought it would be badly received by the Council of Rectors. And I was astonished when, in the preparatory meetings with the representatives of the Council of Rectors - which, naturally, are still part of the governing bodies of the Bial Foundation -, Professor Nuno Grande, the then Director of the Abel Salazar Institute of Biomedical Sciences, made a proposal in favour of supporting precisely these two areas. I almost fell off the chair and I asked him if he was sure about his decision. And he replied that as the investment was being made by Bial, and knowing that my area of research was Psychophysiology and that Parapsychology was an area I wanted to explore, then it would be reasonable to seek further clarification of those areas from the scientific point of view, assuring the Council of Rectors that everything would be done under the rigour of the scientific method.
I bet that this was one of those moments when your eyes shined brighter.
Luis Portela: Of course they shined! Because certain things in life are beyond us. I would never have the nerve to propose these areas of research. But let me tell you that, considering the initial idea of supporting 6/10 researchers, the other fantastic thing about my experience at the Bial Foundation is that we've already been able to support 1,350 researchers from 25 countries. There are things in life we can dream of, but that our thought can't reach.
Now we understand your connection to these new areas of research, but how did you reach the Faculty of Medicine, financing a Laboratory - the LIMMIT - that is led by Professor Mário Simões?
Luis Portela: When I told you that I would like to see a scientifically rigorous research be developed in the areas of Parapsychology and Psychophysiology was precisely to allow, on the one hand, to unmask certain decoys and badly told stories, and, on the other hand, to understand certain types of energies that are unknown, or less known, to humans in the current stage of scientific development. That's the Foundation's stance and mine. I'm not a man of certainties, but I believe that this kind of research will be useful. And it's not up to me, nor to the Foundation, to say what is true and what is a lie. We simply support those who do research, everyone does their job and I hope that they are successful, under the rigour of the scientific method. Of course that in Psychophysiology and Neurosciences in general, Portugal has skilled people and there is no shortage of grant applicants. In the area of parapsychology that are major calls for applications in the USA, Germany, England, Italy, but almost none in Portugal. Hence my appreciation for Professor Mário Simões, who is one of the few who tries to develop this area in a serious way, seeking to develop a respected work in the Faculty of Medicine. He was actually the one who called me and then I was invited by the then Director of the FMUL, Professor Fernandes e Fernandes, to come and talk to them. It was then that they challenged us to support the creation of the new laboratory (LIMMIT) and we saw this with great satisfaction. And we remain available to support, together with them, the exchange with foreign institutions, which are more advanced.
The fact is that there are still some barriers in our culture. You often pass on the message that it's time for Science to start taking research in these new areas seriously. But we're still far from that, aren't we?
Luis Portela: It's not clear why, but there are certain areas where sometimes it's difficult to progress; a certain type of ideas, myths emerge and they become hard to overcome. The first people who argued that the Earth is round faced lots of troubles in their lives because of that. There are many cases related to the evolution of Science over the centuries in which things are difficult and this area is an example. But I also note that, over the last few decades, there have been some developments. Let me give you 2 or 3 examples: hypnosis, telepathy, that is, thought transmission, or acupuncture, were issues that were badly perceived many years ago and today they are methods used without negative connotations around the world. It seems to me that the West is slowly opening up to all these practices.
"Behind and Beyond the Brain" is a symposium held every 2 years in which we bring together grant holders and leading figures in Neurosciences and Parapsychology. In the first years, more than 20 years ago, we realized that these two areas didn't even come face to face with each other. This relationship has been changing over time and there are many cases today in which these specialists create joint projects and this is the real way to make Science. For all this I say that Science no longer has the right to deny things; people should roll up their sleeves and go in search of the truth, clarifying Humanity.