June 2011

Engaging basic scientists in translational research


FASEB holds a symposium to explore ways to facilitate and encourage the participation of basic scientists in translational research.  

Translational research has gone from a buzzword to a focal point in biomedical research policy. Just five years after launching its Clinical and Translational Science Award program, the National Institutes of Health is in the midst of implementing a fast-moving plan to create a new center dedicated to translational science. A major goal of the proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences is to accelerate the pace at which basic research discoveries are developed into new and improved drugs and devices for patients. While NIH leadership has affirmed its commitment to supporting the fundamental research that is the foundation for clinical applications, the agency’s move toward therapeutics development has left some basic investigators wondering how their research programs will be affected and what role they can play in this emerging field.

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To learn more about the symposium, including the meeting agenda and videos of the presentations, go to the FASEB website

To address these issues, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology launched an initiative to examine how research institutions, funding organizations, professional societies and scientific publishers can facilitate the participation of basic scientists in translational research. Led by Richard Galbraith, associate dean and director of the Center for Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, the project kicked off with a two-day symposium in March to discuss both the opportunities and challenges for basic investigators interested in pursuing translational science projects. The meeting brought together more than 150 basic, clinical and translational scientists; scientific journal editors; and leaders from private and public research funding organizations, research institutions and professional societies to discuss the opportunities and challenges for basic scientists in translation. The meeting was hosted by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and sponsored by Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp., the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Francis Collins, director of the NIH, delivered the opening address. He discussed the reasons that fundamental knowledge does not get translated into clinical applications, the role that the NIH, particularly through NCATS, will play in knocking down those barriers and promoting the development of novel diagnostics and therapeutics, and the critical contributions that basic investigators make to translational research. These contributions also were highlighted in the keynote address by Mary Hendrix, president and scientific director of the Children’s Memorial Research Center, Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Hendrix, a former FASEB president, shared insights she gleaned from establishing a translational research program focused on the genetics of cancer metastasis.

The meeting also featured a panel discussion on the benefits that both basic scientists and their institutions derive from participation in translational research. The panel included scientists from Rice University, Cornell University and The Rockefeller University who are bridging the gap between fundamental and applied research in tuberculosis, cell differentiation and behavior, mechanisms of mutagenesis, chemosensation, and gene silencing. The investigators were joined by senior leaders at their universities who shared their perspectives on the value that basic scientists bring to their institutions’ research enterprises.

The second day of the symposium began with a discussion of the challenges of engaging basic researchers in translational work from the perspectives of an early-career scientist, a senior investigator, and a medical school department chair and dean. These discussions set the stage for the main thrust of the meeting: four breakout sessions during which participants, led by leaders in their respective topic areas, were asked to provide recommendations for building and capitalizing on the interest of basic investigators to develop translational research programs. The breakout groups focused on translational research training; providing appropriate recognition and rewards, including tenure and promotions, to basic scientists working in the translational space; facilitating productive research collaborations; and the role of private and public funding organizations in providing basic researchers with incentives to consider or conduct translational research.

FASEB’s steering committee now is focused on developing a white paper articulating the major recommendations that emerged from the meeting. The report also will incorporate the findings from a FASEB survey of nearly 4,000 member society scientists conducted to gather information about basic scientists’ interest in translation and the challenges they perceive to moving their research programs in that direction. When finalized, the report will serve as the basis for future FASEB policy efforts in this area. 

Jennifer HobinJennifer A. Hobin (jhobin@faseb.org) is director of science policy in FASEB’s office of public affairs.

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