Researchers are making great strides in addressing some of the most pressing health problems facing the world today—from developing new ways to reprogram genes to fight cancer, to using immunotherapy to attack the origin of diabetes, to creating a universal flu vaccine. And translational scientists are at the heart of these efforts, helping to move the concepts “from bench to bedside,” according to Rosalyn Adam, PhD, Director of Urology Research and Associate Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School.
Adam and Martina McGrath, MB, BCh, Instructor in Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, are co-leading the new Translational Investigation (TI) track of Harvard Medical School’s Master of Medical Science in Clinical Investigation (MMSCI). This two-year master’s program provides researchers with a unique opportunity to hone their understanding of fundamental research in order to translate the latest laboratory findings into real-world applications that can ultimately improve health outcomes for populations.
“Having strong translational research skills is essential for investigators who wish to apply basic science techniques to answer clinically relevant research questions,” explains McGrath, adding that in layman’s terms, translational research refers to the process of applying basic research findings to solve medical problems. But she points out that many early career researchers and clinicians are not well-versed in this process, which means they could be missing out on important opportunities to take their laboratory findings in areas such as genetics, immunology, and systems biology to the next level and develop them for use in real-world clinical care.
Important Areas for Translational Researchers
Researchers and clinicians with an interest in translational investigation who want to position themselves as future global leaders can benefit from honing their skills in the following areas:
- Developing clinically relevant questions: Although basic science is at the core of therapeutic advances, it’s important for translational researchers to have a broader perspective, serving as a bridge to help move the findings out of the laboratory and into the clinic. Researchers with skills in translational research can be instrumental in asking strategic questions that can guide a more efficient application of research findings. With the translation of research findings to clinical application often taking a decade or more, well-designed studies are invaluable in helping to accelerate the process of translating research into action. By understanding both the clinical landscape and the basic research underlying discoveries, translational researchers are ideally positioned to frame the right questions and identify the key resources required to drive the overall process forward.
- Forming multidisciplinary collaborations: In order for the drawn-out process of translating basic science discoveries to the clinic to move more efficiently, translational scientists can facilitate collaborations with people involved in different phases. “That’s why we train researchers to be multidisciplinary, both in their thinking and, if possible, in everything they do,” McGrath says. While there traditionally has been a gap between basic discovery research and efforts to apply knowledge to clinical care, she points out that taking a multidisciplinary approach can be part of the solution to address this barrier. By working together with researchers, clinicians, epidemiologists, policy makers, funders, and others with a vested interest in the outcomes, medical discoveries can be advanced and brought to fruition more efficiently.
- Connecting research to cases: “Aside from the traditional bench to bedside approach, translational researchers commonly take clinical findings, for example, samples from a rejected transplant kidney, and then study these in the lab. Information from these clinical samples can increase our understanding of what happened, and may ultimately lead to new treatments,” says Adam. This makes it important to be able to tie together clinical research, case studies, and basic observations in the laboratory, to develop new approaches to improve outcomes. This flexible, bi-directional approach to investigation, moving from the lab to the clinic and back again, allows translational investigators to tailor their studies according to their specific goals.
- Communicating research for collaboration. Medical research is moving at a faster pace than at any time in history. Innovations and technologies are advancing so rapidly that no one investigator can be skilled in all areas that might be relevant to their studies. A weakness in current training in basic research is that while individuals become skilled in their own arena, they may lack the understanding of other approaches that could give new answers to challenging problems. “Being conversant in terminology and research methods as it relates across the entire spectrum from basic science through pre-clinical and clinical studies to looking at something in the population is very valuable,” Adam says. This shared knowledge can foster deeper and more effective research collaborations. This type of rich academic environment, shared with colleagues who use varied and novel research methods, can provide new perspectives and insights to translational research questions. In addition, training in scientific writing and communication is key. The ability to effectively communicate discoveries to colleagues, funding agencies, and the broader scientific community is an indispensable skill for successful translational investigators.
Benefits of Building Translational Skills
Ultimately, researchers from all backgrounds can benefit from being trained in all of these, and many more, areas, which will allow them to connect research efforts to the very real needs that exist in clinical settings.
“Modern science is multi-disciplinary,” McGrath says, adding that this makes it essential for scientists to broaden their translational investigation skills so they can effectively take the latest therapeutic developments and apply them to improve the overall health of populations.
Written by Lisa D. Ellis