By Jane Naberhuis and Andrea Anastasio
I’ve been fortunate as a graduate student to have the opportunity to be involved in both animal and human subject research. Although I’ve never worked in cell culture, being involved in multiple research areas along the “bench-to-bedside” pipeline has expanded my view of what it takes for a discovery in basic research to be translated into a meaningful new recommendation, drug, or device intended to benefit the public. As such, I’ve recently become interested in learning more about the entire bench-to-bedside progression of research, especially since it can take years, even a decade or more, for a basic discovery to be translated into something ready for use in a clinical setting.
Translational research requires precisely that: a translation from what is discovered in the lab, or a study, into trials and studies on humans. A scientist in a laboratory may not have adequate training to understand how their discovery can be applied clinically. Likewise, a public health scientist may understand their community, but not the basic research. In order to address health concerns, ideas must be able to flow between these areas of expertise. Translational research is a kind of “middle-man,” making sure these discoveries reach the larger community.
A quick online search reveals that I’m not the only one becoming increasingly interested in the idea and implementation of “translational research.” The National Institutes of Health has an entire National Center for Advancing Translational Studies, and there are multiple scholarly journals devoted to publishing findings of translational research (including both Translational Research: The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine and The American Journal of Translational Research). The NIH Roadmap for Medical Research also provides an excellent resource of programs focusing on how to clinically apply biomedical discoveries. In addition, a quick PubMed search reveals steadily increasing numbers of publications concerning translational research since the term was first published in 1993 (see Figure 1).
One concern with translational research is not only how to define it, but how to properly train individuals in a discipline that crosses different levels of biomedical research. Its multidisciplinary nature will require flexibility to integrate information from basic research, clinical research, and research based on the general population. Forging a career in translational research is an exciting challenge, and opportunities have become more available in just the last several years. M.D.-Ph.D. programs are one option available, as well as master’s programs that allow for faster completion of a degree. The Mayo Clinic recently announced two online programs: the Research Applications for Practice Improvement Decisions (RAPID) Certificate Program and the Fundamentals of Clinical and Translational Science (FunCaTS) Program. New York University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute offers multiple programs geared towards a wide-range of levels of experience, including medical students, post-doctoral trainees, and junior faculty.
Whatever path one follows in this field, the process of translational research is not a linear process. That is, while benchtop science provides clinicians with novel tools to use in clinical practice, researchers in the clinical setting also make observations about disease progression or physiology, for example, which stimulates additional basic investigations. This provides an exciting opportunity for researchers at all stages along the bench-to-bedside pipeline to contribute meaningfully to new discoveries that will advance the field of human medicine. Indeed, it is an exciting time to be involved in translational research which may produce preventative, diagnostic, therapeutic, or prognostic tools that benefit patients, and ultimately ensure that the practice of medicine is evidence-based.