César Nombela, Professor at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the Complutense University of Madrid and microbiology researcher, has passed away.

He was president of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) between 1996 and 2000 and rector of the Menéndez Pelayo International University (UIMP) between 2013 and 2017.

Born in Carriches (Toledo, Spain) in 1946, he graduated in Pharmacy and Chemical Sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid. In 1972 he received his doctorate from the University of Salamanca. In the following three years he worked at New York University with Severo Ochoa and at the Roche Institute for Molecular Biology.

He also chaired the National Council of Pharmaceutical Specialties and the Spanish Society of Microbiology (1982-90), as well as the European Federation of Microbiology Societies (1995-98). He has been a member of the European Academy and since 2006 he has been a member of the Royal National Academy of Pharmacy.  In addition to several scientific societies, he was a member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO (1998-2003) and, in Spain, president of the Advisory Committee on Ethics in Scientific and Technological Research (2002-2005).

He worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the United States (1972-75), with Nobel Prize winner Severo Ochoa, at New York University and at the Roche Institute for Molecular Biology in New Jersey.

In 1975 he joined the Institute of Biochemical Microbiology of the CSIC in Salamanca, from which he transferred to the Complutense University of Madrid, obtaining the chair of Microbiology at the Faculty of Pharmacy in 1981.

His research in Microbial Molecular Biology and Biotechnology focused on model microorganisms, addressing cell wall biogenesis, signal transduction in the cell, pathogenicity and virulence factors, and applications to recombinant protein production. His use of genomic and proteomic technology stands out, directing since 2001 the first extraordinary chair of Genomics and Proteomics of the Spanish university (sponsored by the Merck, Sharp & Dhome laboratories).

He was the author of more than 140 original research papers and director of more than 25 doctoral theses, having published articles in areas such as bioethics, university policy and science policy.

He held important positions in foundations and was president of the Carmen and Severo Ochoa Foundation by testamentary designation of Spanish Nobel prize winner Ochoa.

He was in possession of the Grand Cross of the Order of Civil Merit (2001), a distinction that recognizes “the civic virtue of officers in the service of the Nation, as well as extraordinary service by Spanish and foreign citizens for the benefit of Spain.”

Dedication to Bioethics

His dedication in the field of Bioethics was oriented towards the defense of human life and dignity in all circumstances.

At the Conference on Bioethics at the CEU Cardenal Herrera University in Valencia (Spain) in 2012, he stated that “putting limits on the recognition that human life begins at conception can justify anything.” For this reason, in vitro fertilization techniques, which today make possible the existence of human beings outside the womb, demand, in his opinion, special consideration of bioethics. “The first cell division in the zygote marks the future of every human being. In the 13th week, all the organs, the hands, the legs and the sex of each individual are formed”. Therefore, for César Nombela, limiting the right to live to having exceeded 14 weeks of pregnancy lacked justification: “why not at 8 or 16 weeks?”

Nombela stressed that human dignity is the central concept of bioethics, although some scientists have even claimed that it is a “useless concept” and others have equated human dignity with animal life. “For some scientists, primates should have human rights, because they share 98% of the human genome, while a handicapped child can be eliminated. I doubt they know what genetic homology means: the mouse shares 90% of our genome, microbes 30%: do we claim for microbes 30% of human rights?

He denounced concepts such as “pre-person” or ex-person”, which allow science to reach cynical positions, turning bioethics into a “path to compromise” or to “twist language in a way that justifies any action against human life.

Bioethics, which was born only 40 years ago, has experienced an exponential boom, said Nombela, but attempts are being made to reduce it to a “way to find solutions for anything”, to “find quick and immediate answers to issues such as abortion or euthanasia“.

Rest in peace Dr. Nombela, an honest and qualified defender of scientific truth, of life and of the human being. Let’s follow in his footsteps and learn from his legacy.

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