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Endless pioneering efforts

Showing independence and daring, Ricardo Brentani promoted molecular biology and strengthened cancer research in Brazil

EDUARDO CESAR“Brentani used to make women feel comfortable in the workplace. He used to say ‘I’d rather work with women than men. Women are more responsible and more careful in the way they do things. I’m an unconditional fan of women’,” recalls Luisa Villa, who took over from Ricardo Renzo Brentani at the Instituto Ludwig de Pesquisas sobre o Câncer (Ludwig Cancer Research Institute), which he ran from 1985 to 2005.

Brentani, who died of a heart attack on November 29, at the age of 74, was known for having an independent mind. He did not allow himself to be concerned by the machismo and the formality that dominates the academic world. Extroverted, highly skilled at making unexpected, cutting and good humored comments, as well as being objective and affectionate in his own way with his teams, he was a scientist of great vision, and stands out as one of the pioneers in the field of molecular biology, from the 1970s onwards, and in the area of cancer genetics research at the end of the 1990s, by means of the Human Cancer Genome project, financed by FAPESP and the Ludwig Institute.

But he was not content with remaining in the laboratory and the classroom, producing or planting many new ideas, which resulted in a total of roughly 200 scientific articles, many of which were published in the most prestigious scientific journals, over the course of 50 years of work. To an extent equaled by few others, he was also an administrator who ran a very tight ship, such as in his role as Chairman of the Antônio Prudente Foundation, which operates the A. C. Camargo Hospital, and as coordinator of the Antonio Prudente Center for Cancer Research and Treatment, one of the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (Cepid) supported by FAPESP, and as head of FAPESP’s Technical-Administrative Council (CTA) from December 2004 until his death.

Under his leadership since 1990, the Cancer Hospital (Hospital do Câncer) became an international reference for cancer research, teaching and treatment. When he was awarded the Conrado Wessel Science Prize in 2007, one of many that he received, Brentani himself said: “I thought that the hospital should be more than just a simple hospital. It should be a teaching and research center. In 1996, we received accreditation from MEC (the Brazilian Ministry of Education) for a post-graduate course. This is the only private sector hospital in Brazil that has a MEC approved post-graduate course in this field. The first grade that the course was awarded was a 4, the second a 6 and the third a 7, which is the maximum score possible. It was one of only two courses in the medical area that was awarded a 7. This idea of turning the hospital into a teaching and research center was the solution to our funding problems. Nowadays the hospital is in a very healthy position, financially speaking.”

“Brentani managed to get an institution that was bankrupt, namely the Cancer Hospital, back on its feet,” comments Isaias Raw, one of Brentani’s professors at the University of São Paulo’s Medical School (FMUSP) and who is Chairman of the Butantã Foundation’s technical-scientific council and scientific head of the Butantan Institute’s Biotechnology Center. Raw stresses that you cannot run an institution such as a hospital “if you don’t understand basic science or without a managerial perspective.” In his opinion, the idea of generic administrators, who are able to run businesses as different as a bank and a supermarket is, “total rubbish.”

Ricardo Brentani was born in 1937 in Trieste, Italy, and moved to Brazil as a child, becoming a Brazilian citizen later. His father, Segismundo, was a businessman and his mother, Gerda, was an artist. He studied at the Instituto Mackenzie school before entering USP to do medicine. “Right from the start he was a student who had a natural aptitude for research. He worked with me from his first year at university. He asked me to give him guidance, but I never did,” explains Raw, who was his advisor for his doctorate. Maria Mitzi, Brentani’s future wife (they celebrated their golden anniversary in April, had four children, Hugo, Helena, Alexandra and Barbara, and 10 grandchildren) and scientific collaborator (they co-signed various articles) was already working at Raw’s laboratory.

Raw remembers when Brentani found that the nucleolus, an area of cells, was important for the production of messenger RNA. Brentani came into Raw’s office. Fritz Lipmann, the German scientist who had won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1953, was there, looked at the figures and said that they were correct. “It took another 15 years before the importance of the nucleolus in the synthesis of messenger RNA, which at the time did not yet have a name, was recognized,” recounts Raw, who is 84.

Michel Pinkus Rabinovitch, former professor of USP’s School of Medicine and currently collaborating professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), also remembers how the young student had an independent mind: “He didn’t ask before he did things.” In 1954, Rabinovitch returned from a period in the United States and began to put together his team, which consisted of intellectually restless medical students such as Nelson Fausto, Thomas Maack, Sérgio Henrique Ferreira and Ricardo Brentani, who joined the group shortly after the others.

“I never taught anyone else like these boys, not in France, nor in the United States,” recounts Rabinovitch, at the age of 85. “That group was like an intellectual furnace, they were on fire.” In 1960 and 1961, a year before completing his degree in medicine at USP, Brentani, together with the professor and his colleagues co-signed his first two scientific articles, both in the Journal of Biophysical and Biochemical Cytology. “It was an amazing period; unfortunately the dictatorship put an end to all that.”

FAMILY COLLECTIONLooking like a film star, with his wife, at a scientific event in the 1970’sFAMILY COLLECTION

This familiarity included long beer-fueled conversations at the Riviera bar, on the corner of Avenida Paulista with Rua Consolação, one of the meeting places for the city of Sao Paulo’s intellectual elite in the 1960s and 1970s. “We were like a family,” says Rabinovitch, who often knew the students’ parents as well. He recalls that at the time a book came out that had been written by the scientific philosopher Karl Raimund Popper. Ricardo Brentani, who was then only about 20, saw the book and disliked something about it. However, he did not calm down and instead he decided to take action, without informing anyone else, of course.

“He wrote to Popper and Popper replied, treating him as if he were also a philosopher,” recalls Rabinovitch, who followed the debate between the bold student and Popper. “Ricardo had a good level of education and was extremely intelligent.” Those who spent time with him noticed that he encouraged young people not to back down in the face of big shots or those who seemed superior. The rationale for this was simple: if he was in correspondence with Popper during a period when there was no such thing as a computer, why should young people with PhDs hesitate to approach a Nobel Prize winner who was standing just a few meters away? Brentani ensured that the people who made up his teams quickly recognized and overcame their own fears.

Rabinovitch’s pupils made their mark. Nelson Fausto established himself as a professor and researcher at the University of Washington, in the United States; Maack, who had to leave Brazil in 1964, built his career at Cornell University; and Sérgio Henrique Ferreira, as a professor of USP’s School of Medicine in the city of Ribeirão Preto and one of Brazil’s most important researchers in the field of pharmacology.

Sport and science
Brentani also liked sports. He was in his medical school’s water polo team, liked to run on the beach and enjoyed soccer (being a Santos supporter).

He was a professor at FMUSP until 2007, when he had to retire, upon reaching the age of 70. As his former professors had done before him, Brentani produced researchers who stood out as leaders of cancer research groups, such as Roger Chamas, at FMUSP, and Luiza Villa and Emmanuel Dias-Neto at the Cancer Hospital.

Brentani opened up new lines of research, by demonstrating, for instance, the normal role played by a type of protein, prions, which he suspected were capable of more than just causing diseases. The A. C. Camargo Hospital’s International Center of Cancer Research and Teaching (Cipe), which Brentani helped to create, came into operation in 2010. “He never ran away from a fight,” reiterates Erasmo Magalhães Castro de Tolosa, an FMUSP professor emeritus who had been in contact with Brentani since the days when they were both medical students.

Carlos Vogt met Brentani on FAPESP’s Executive Committee, which the doctor was already a member of and the linguist had only recently joined. “Right from the outset, I became aware of his passionate and critical nature, from his comments, his evaluations, and from the fact that I was able to detect that whenever he took a stance, he emphasized institutional and academic reasons over all others,” explains Vogt, who was appointed the Foundation’s President the following year.

In 2004, Brentani took over as head of FAPESP’s Technical-Administrative Council (CTA), replacing Francisco Romeu Landi, who had died a slightly earlier. Celso Lafer, FAPESP’s chairman, noted that Ricardo Brentani, “with his strong personality and keen intelligence, made an invaluable contribution to raising the level of quality at FAPESP. He will be sorely missed by all of us, his companions and his work colleagues.”

“Brentani was a valued colleague on FAPESP’s executive committee,” commented Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, who is the scientific director. “Because he was a scientist of the highest caliber he always brought a stimulating, rigorous academic point of view to all discussions. We will miss his presence both as an administrator as well as a scientist.”

FAPESP’s administrative director, Joaquim José de Camargo Engler, observed that “Professor Brentani was a great friend and companion. I had contact with him at the University of São Paulo, and closer contact and more in common at FAPESP, once he became a member of the executive committee and, even more constant contact, once he took over as head of the Foundation’s Technical-Administrative Council (CTA). He had a privileged intelligence, very quick reasoning and was an unconditional friend.”

On the 29th, Brentani attended a presentation at the hospital by Renata Pasqualini and Wadih Arap, two of his former students who developed a new strategy to fight cancer at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center (see article on page 54). Afterwards, he spent the afternoon talking with them and with Diana Noronha Nunes and Emmanuel Dias-Neto, who are researchers at the A. C. Camargo Cancer Hospital. “It was an afternoon in which he seemed to be especially happy, there were smiles and there was laughter, plans and lots of dreams. He was happy with the arrival of our future research director, and with the hospital’s progress and with the way that research is being carried out,” observed Dias-Neto. “I do not recall any unpleasant topic or anything that diminished his sense of happiness. It began to rain at the end of our meeting. We had hardly said our goodbyes, when we found out, about two hours later, that the rain would last for a long time.”

Fabrício Marques (editing the interview) and Jussara Greco (producing the photos) took part