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Association of American Medical Colleges Tomorrow's Doctors, Tomorrow's Cures®

Viewpoint: The Challenge of Engaging Basic Scientists in Translational Research

AAMC Reporter: December 2012

By Judith S. Bond, Ph.D., President, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, and Richard A. Galbraith, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Medicine, Director of the Center for Clinical and Translational Science, and Associate Dean of the University of Vermont College of Medicine

Discovery science is critical to the development of novel medical treatments and new cures. There is great national interest in accelerating the pace at which breakthrough medical interventions move from the laboratory to the bedside, but there are substantial challenges to moving quickly and efficiently. The interest comes from members of Congress, universities and research institutes, and the public, as well as the scientists, clinicians, and trainees who make up the biomedical community. There is great promise and opportunity. And the time is ripe to engage our biomedical scientists trained in “discovery” research, in the fundamental basis of life, and in experimental design and problem-solving to join in all phases of the search for clinical advances.

Certainly it will take the talent, energy, and focus of many members of our biomedical enterprise for us to continue to make advances. This was the focus of a recent symposium, organized by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), that aimed to shine a light on the vital role that basic science plays in translational research and on actions that the research community, including medical schools and teaching hospitals, can take to encourage and support better participation.

Basic scientists are the foundation of the biomedical research enterprise. Their work is essential to illuminating fundamental biological processes and the mechanisms of disease pathogenesis. As speakers at FASEB’s meeting noted over and over again, researchers are more likely to realize the clinical potential of discoveries made at the bench when basic scientists, clinicians, clinical investigators, and industry partners have the opportunity to learn from and work with one another to move research discoveries to the bedside and, ultimately, into our communities.

Unfortunately, at many institutions the training, research, and funding environments do not encourage basic science investigators to participate in translational science. Although there have been strides in developing translational research training programs, inadequate experiential and didactic training remains a barrier for many basic investigators who may lack training in human disease processes and experience in essential translational techniques.

Furthermore, the physical and cultural separation of basic and clinical departments at many research universities limits opportunities for basic scientists to network with and learn from clinicians and clinical researchers who may be working in similar disease areas and who have complementary skills. As a result, many basic scientists working to unravel the molecular mechanisms of human diseases never have the opportunity to interact with people who suffer from or treat those diseases. Those who do venture into the translational research space may encounter challenges obtaining funding, particularly if the work they are proposing stretches beyond the immediate scope of their basic research program.

Navigating the maze of administrative and regulatory issues involved in translational science can be challenging. Those who do succeed may find it difficult to publish their work in journals, which tend to favor hypothesis-driven research over goal-directed or applied science.

Likewise, basic science departments and tenure and promotion committees may not attribute the same value to translational research (or interdisciplinary, team-based research, as translational projects often are) as they would to investigator-initiated, discipline-focused basic research. Taken together, these challenges are enough to discourage all but the most tenacious basic investigators from initiating or participating in translational research programs.

We can overcome these obstacles. Medical schools and teaching hospitals can play a leading role in effecting the necessary changes. Basic research departments within medical schools and elsewhere could provide learning opportunities for established basic science investigators, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers interested in translational science. Such training should place basic research in the context of pathophysiology and pathobiology; enable the acquisition of the wide range of skills needed to conduct translational research; and provide opportunities for trainees in the basic sciences to interact with clinical investigators, clinicians, and patients. In doing so, medical schools can open up new opportunities for trainees in the basic sciences to contribute to the research enterprise.

Medical schools and teaching hospitals also can encourage and facilitate greater collaboration, cooperation, communication, and respect among basic and clinical scientists by establishing or supporting seminars, workshops, databases, and other networking tools and opportunities that bring together scientists from across the research spectrum. In addition to helping basic scientists identify collaborators, institutions can help them access the research resources and the expertise they will need to conduct translational science. This might include support for developing technology transfer and data-sharing agreements, writing protocols for institutional review boards, and designing and executing clinical trials.

Research institutions also should examine their appointment, tenure, and promotion policies to ensure that basic scientists—and indeed all scientists—who make valuable contributions to translational, team-based, and interdisciplinary research are recognized and rewarded for their accomplishments. The National Institutes of Health provides guidelines for writing appointment letters for interdisciplinary scientists and for reviewing and rewarding their progress, and some institutions have addressed these issues in their tenure and promotion manuals. But it is not enough to give lip service to the notion that basic investigators should be recognized—rather than penalized—for this work. Institutions ought to initiate a cultural shift in the way they measure scientific contributions and educate faculty and administrators at every level on the importance of supporting faculty engagement in translational research.

We are fortunate to live in a time of unprecedented opportunity to make major gains in the prevention, treatment, and cure of disease. To realize this potential, however, it is critical that we draw upon the expertise of scientists working at all points in the research spectrum. With their tripartite mission to provide the best in medical education, research, and patient care, medical schools and teaching hospitals can make this vision a reality.

December 2012 Home

Judith S. Bond, Ph.D.

Judith S. Bond, Ph.D.

Richard A. Galbraith, M.D., Ph.D.

Richard A. Galbraith, M.D., Ph.D.