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

NIH Prepares Future Workforce for Translational Science

AAMC Reporter: September 2011

-By Sarah Mann

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is taking action to ensure the next generation of scientists have the resources and training necessary to translate scientific discoveries into new treatments as quickly and efficiently as possible. With this goal in mind, new NIH programs and groups are focusing on research workforce needs and how to translate new findings into practice.

The NIH has formed a Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group to develop a diverse, sustainable research workforce that will be prepared to advance new scientific discoveries into treatments. Secondly, the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) will focus on linking basic science research with new treatments and clinical care.

“I hope there will be an understanding of where we need adequately trained people, and a recognition that we need to develop training modalities that will train scientists to work in teams, collaborate with people who understand clinical needs, and translate basic findings as rapidly as is responsible,” said Naomi Rosenberg, Ph.D., dean of the Tufts University Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.

The working group is identifying the types of research positions that will help advance biomedical and behavioral sciences, as well as the kinds of transitional training researchers should have. In the future, new training models might include more opportunities for medical students and residents to explore clinical and translational research, as well as more programs designed to teach students how to carry out research effectively. The working group will make recommendations to NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director on how to build a sustainable and diverse research workforce that reflects the growing need for translational science.

“Science has changed over the past decade, and we have not maximized what we can do with new information,”said Rosenberg, who is a member of the working group. “We also recognize the importance of translating basic findings into new modalities and assessing how the workforce can meet those challenges.”

While the working group focuses on training researchers to develop new treatments, NCATS will concentrate on strengthening collaborations between the biomedical industry and academia to speed up the time it takes to transform scientific discoveries into viable treatments for patients.

“NCATS is looking at existing resources and capacity in the translational research area and putting those together in a way that they can perhaps get more bang for the buck,” said Margaret A. Anderson, executive director of Faster Cures, an organization that focuses on improving the medical research system.

The proposed center was announced last December and is scheduled to launch Oct. 1. The center is not without controversy, however. In June, Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), chair of the House subcommittee that oversees NIH funding, sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius expressing concern about the effect NCATS might have on existing NIH programs. Rehberg said it is “premature” for NIH to move forward with NCATS until President Obama formally requests the new center and Congress approves it. NCATS will reorganize NIH’s National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), which houses the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) program. Under the NCATS proposal, the CTSAs would transfer to NCATS; other NCRR programs would move to other institutes.

“I’m concerned about NIH trying to reinvent the wheel in terms of spending money for drug research when the pharmaceutical industry has invested hundreds ofmillions of dollars and has the best expertise to do the pharmaceutical chemistry,” said Suzanne Pfeffer, Ph.D., a biochemistry professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). “We support doing whatever NIH can to develop treatments for diseases, but right now funding is so tight.”

Pfeffer added that she believes it would be more appropriate for NIH to develop partnerships with pharmaceutical companies to discuss how industry scientists and the government can better collaborate.

Garret A. FitzGerald, M.D., associate dean for translational research at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the school’s Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, said the biomedical research industry in the past primarily has developed new drugs within a single company, but that the industry is increasing collaborations across academia, and pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

“I see NCATS as moving to enhance the value of those partnerships,” FitzGerald said. “I think the major role of NCATS is to enable academia to play in this space by investment in programs, education, and infrastructure.”

Regardless of how collaboration across industry and academia happens, Anderson said it will be crucial to moving research agendas forward.

“We are in a time with medical research where no one has the magic bullet or the holy grail,” Anderson said. “The only way we are going to get to the future everyone wants to see and reap the benefit of scientific discovery is if everybody starts working together.”