In memoriam César Nombela

18-10-2022

We are truly sad to inform you that EAM fellow Prof. César Nombela passed away on 14 October 2022, at the age of 75. Find below a short obituary written by Prof. Jesús Pla.

Cesar Nombela was born in Carriches, Toledo (Spain) in 1946. He graduated in Pharmacy and Chemistry at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in 1969 and under the supervision of Prof. Julio Rodríguez Villanueva obtained in 1972 his PhD in Sciences at the University of Salamanca, working on the enzymology of cell wall construction in the brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. He then moved to the University of New York and the Roche Institute for Molecular Biology in New Jersey working as a post-doctoral fellow under the supervision of Severo Ochoa. Returning to Spain, he obtained in 1975 a position at the Instituto de Microbiología de Salamanca of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC). In 1982, he obtained a full professorship at the Department of Microbiology of the Faculty of Pharmacy of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM), where he spent most of his academic career becoming Emeritus Professor in 2016.

Most of his research focused on yeasts as model organisms, with special emphasis on the biogenesis of the fungal cell wall, a subject with great clinical interest given the limited number of antifungals available at that time. Using a classical genetics approach in collaboration with colleagues in Salamanca, his research ultimately led to the discovery of the role of MAP kinase pathways in the construction of the fungal cell wall, a completely unforeseen result at that time. His work through the subsequent years focused on determining the elements, stimuli, targets, and consequences of activation of these routes in fungal physiology. This research, initially with academic interest proved to have relevant applications. He is the author of patents involving the use of yeasts as models to develop new antifungals to treat human diseases. While mainly using S. cerevisiae, he also made prominent studies in other fungal species like Candida albicans, with emphasis on the morphogenetic transitions that ultimately regulate the virulence of this pathogenic yeast. His long-term vision in science led him to promote the emerging fields of Genomics and Proteomics having an active role in different EU initiatives to sequence model organisms (Aspergillus, Saccharomyces) and in studying their Functional Genomics. Being aware of the necessity of cooperation between industry and academy, he participated in several projects with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, Lilly, Glaxo-Wellcome; Pfizer, Smith-Kline Beecham, Jansen-Cilag, or Merck Sharp & Dohme among them to discover new antifungals. In line with this, he promoted the Cátedra de Genómica y Proteómica (Merck Sharp & Dhome) and the Cátedra de Bebidas Fermentadas at the UCM.

He was appointed president of the CSIC during the period 1996-2000, where he had a crucial role in involving scientists in the response to the ecological disaster generated by the toxic spills of Aznalcollar (Spain). Prof. Nombela was president of the Consejo Nacional de Especialidades Farmacéuticas, the Sociedad Española de Microbiología (SEM), and the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS), among other organizations. The relevance of scientific societies in promoting science was one of his continuous interests all along his scientific career and he promoted the organization of introductory courses and seminars for young scientists such as those in La Granda, Asturias (Spain). He was also Rector of the Universidad International Menéndez Pelayo during the period 2013-2017 and was a member of the Real Academia de Farmacia of Spain from 2007. He was also President of the Fundación Carmen y Severo Ochoa by direct appointment of Prof. Ochoa, a leading foundation awarding a prestigious prize to brilliant biologists in Spain, and President of the QUAES Foundation from 2018.

His scientific research resulted in the authorship of over 200 peer-reviewed publications, being principal investigator of several regional national, and international projects, numerous invited lectures at national and international conferences, and the organization of workshops in the field of microbiology. Prof Nombela was fully devoted to understanding the function of all microbes. Most importantly, he was interested in how Microbiology could improve the lives of people and how scientists could contribute to society’s welfare.

He was conscious of the need to promote science in society and, consequently, had a relevant activity in writing books and general press articles that brought several topics of importance (such as the COVID-19 pandemic) closer to the public, always providing a balanced and reflexive point of view of such issues. He was a member of the first Bioethical Committee in Spain, compromised in defending the importance of human life from early conception. Prof. Nombela was elected as founding member of the European Academy of Microbiology in 2009.

Regarding his human qualities, Prof. Nombela was a teacher who was accessible to students, extremely generous with his pupils, always taking care of his friends and truly devoted to his family, especially his beloved wife Nohelly. He had a great interest in history, classical music, and theatre and, above all, he was a pleasant and great talker.

With his death, the scientific community in Spain loses a reference and a guide for many young researchers. Rest in peace.”

Prof. Jesús Pla, Madrid

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