Editor in chief Alex Pearlman spoke with Petrie-Flom Center Senior Fellow Douglas Eby about major challenges facing translational research, and how an upcoming conference might begin to bridge funding gaps between the bench and the bedside.
Alex Pearlman: For those who have never heard the term “translational research” before, how would you explain it?
Douglas Eby: Translational research is the process that commercializes academic medical research into therapies that improve patient lives. I like to think of this as laboratory bench-to-business-to-patient bedside. It is often referred to as bench-to-bedside, but this ignores an important player in the process: business, the critical fulcrum of translational research.
AP: Innovation doesn’t come cheap. But why is it so crucial that we find new streams of funding for translational research specifically?
DE: The original model of translational research, designed by Vannevar Bush in the 1950’s at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, prescribed that the federal government would finance early stage medical academic research. This formula worked well for decades, but is showing considerable signs of wear in the 21st century. The Human Genome Project, which has fundamentally changed the way clinicians and researchers think about and approach disease, combined with an explosion in medical data driven by Moore’s Law and internet protocol, has created unprecedented, and once thought unimaginable, translational research opportunities.
Government funding is simply unable to to keep pace, creating a severe bottleneck in the commercialization of life sciences academic research. By way of example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world’s largest non-profit financier of medical research, used to fund over 50 percent of grant applications. That figure has dropped below 10 percent, resulting in a sizable funding gap. The bottom line is that important research is not being funded, which is why we must find new streams of funding.
AP: Monday’s conference will partly consider how to use private, for-profit investment for funding translational research. In your opinion, what are the three biggest challenges associated with this model?
DE: Firstly, we must make sure that academic institutions do not lose sight of their primary mission, which is to educate students.
Secondly, leadership at not-for-profit research institutions must change the culture of their organizations in order to accelerate translational research. This requires a modification of incentives, support, and education for principal investigators, but the challenge is to accomplish this transition in a careful and thoughtful manner — one that does not tip the balance between basic and applied research too far towards the latter.
Thirdly, academic institutions must guard against research decisions being overly influenced by for-profit investors, who tend to be trend-followers chasing the hot sectors.
AP: What do you hope the Working Group will achieve on Monday, and what are the next steps?
DE: Our hope is that the working group will produce a healthy and productive discussion amongst key opinion leaders about the primary issues facing translational research. Afterwards, our [Innovative Funding Models Project] team will distill these opinions into a white paper, which we hope will form the basis for future work on best practices for accelerating medical innovation at non-profit research institutions.