February 2012

The value of basic research shouldn’t be lost in translation

We have to tell the story of the symbiotic relationship between fundamental and applied science


On Dec. 23, President Obama signed into law the fiscal 2012 omnibus appropriations bill that allocated funding for multiple federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. The NIH received a modest funding gain of about $239 million for the 2012 fiscal year, which was generally viewed as a victory in this fiscally constrained environment. Also included in the appropriations bill was language that officially established a new NIH center, the National Center for Advancing Translational Science, whose mission is to develop ways to reduce, remove or bypass the bottlenecks often associated with the translational pipeline.

Since the NCATS was proposed in late 2010, the purpose, structure and funding for it have been steeped in controversy within the research community. Streamlining the translational research process is certainly a significant issue in the research field and has been a specific goal of both NIH Director Francis S. Collins and Obama. While many would find that only 5 percent of candidate drugs become effective treatments disappointing, many basic research scientists were concerned that the NCATS would pull the focus away from basic research, which always has been the core of the NIH mission.

Ultimately, basic research and translational research are intimately connected. While it might be easier to explain how an HIV vaccine or prosthetic limb technology improves patients’ well-being, the fact remains that basic research is the foundation of translational research. It is important for basic scientists to continue to emphasize the fundamental and critical role that basic research plays in the translational pipeline. For instance, it would have been impossible to create chemotherapy treatments without first understanding the molecular differences in cancer cells or to develop recombinant DNA technology, a concept upon which the entire biotechnology industry is based, without basic research on bacterial biochemistry.

An excellent example of the interplay between basic and translational research can be seen in the work done on G-protein-coupled receptors. In the 1970s, fundamental research on signal transduction mechanisms led to the discovery of G proteins. Representative G-protein-coupled receptors were subsequently discovered in studies of hormone action, vision and other processes. These receptors represent the targets of nearly half of all drugs, which have therapeutic actions across a wide array of human diseases ranging from allergic rhinitis and hypertension to schizophrenia. We’re talking about 40 years of research that now represents a huge slice of the pharmaceutical pie. That’s a story that needs to be told.

The initial work behind those therapeutics was not directed toward translation but rather fundamental knowledge. Without that basic knowledge, understanding the action of many drugs and developing assays for drug discovery and development would be essentially impossible.

The moral of the story is that an investment in basic research, for all intents and purposes, is indeed an investment in translational research. However, the payoffs of that investment probably won’t be seen for many years. The treatments that are being developed now are the result of decades of previous basic research that laid the groundwork for their discovery. This is an argument that most basic researchers know well but is often lost on the public at large.

Translational research is entirely dependent on the basic research enterprise, and efforts to integrate these two fields more closely should be seen as beneficial to both. Now that the NCATS has the official seal of approval, it’s important for the basic research community to support this new NIH endeavor. And it’s equally important for researchers to spread the word about the long-term benefits of basic research.

Julie_McClureJulie McClure (jmcclure@asbmb.org) is a science policy fellow at the ASBMB.

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