Transformational Translational Research

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First cohort of the Translational Research Program, Institute of Medical Science, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto

By: the TRP Team

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students in class 1
students in class 2

When the first of our ancestors, after discovering the usefulness of a sharpened rock realized that a rock bound to a stick had greater utility, the discovery was transformed. In health science the mobilization of knowledge from discovery to innovation, from “bench to bedside” or “cell to society” is often referred to as translation, and it is not a new concept—make knowledge useful; apply knowledge to gain benefit. What is different today is the scope and the approach to how knowledge is translated.

Translation is rarely an individual activity. The bench scientist is rarely the prolific Edison-Inventor who is capable of having the knowledge, vision and in depth understanding of the science, regulations, legal considerations, organizational behaviour, health policy command, business acumen, manufacturing familiarity, and networks to take their scientific insight and translate it into an innovation that has tangible benefits for human health—not that this doesn’t happen, but this is rare and rarely an individual effort. The scope of translation has changed. The increased complexity of translating has created what many have referred to as valleys of death. Aspects of the translating process, where discoveries and potential innovations (even those who show great promise) die are many and complex, and increasingly require significant expertise, networks and resources required to prove, scale, and diffuse innovation.

That has also changed, or is at least in the process of changing is the approach to translation.  Not only is it increasingly “team sport”, but who and how it is played has increasingly many flavours—there is no cookie cutter magic formula that will ensure that health science discoveries have direct impact. One approach is to translation is training the scientist-translator; providing the researcher who is working in the lab to advance science to be mindful of the implications and directions of their work. The discovery scientist or clinician investigator is often in the best position to understand the implications and the possible directions of their work. Providing them with skills to network, communicate, and understand the process of moving beyond publications, beyond intellectual patenting and into the minefields of negotiating contracts and licenses, is undoubtedly a key step towards ensuring that discoveries are not stuck in the translational valleys of death without reason.

A second approach to translation is training someone to translate. In this case the translator may not be someone who was actually involved in the initial discovery, but is someone who is able to see the potential of a discovery to meet a specific medical need. Trying to identify an ingenuity gap or medical need for which science may be employed to provide a solution is not necessarily the way most scientists are trained. Starting with a patient need to generate new knowledge, applied knowledge that attempts to solve a problem is itself a major undertaking.  Moving scientific investigation towards translational science requires a different type of toolbox.

The translational tool box or the core aspects of Translational Research that the new Masters in Health Science in Translational Research includes collaboration, networking, iterative prototyping, evaluation, project management skills, communication skills, and critical analysis of needs, markets, policies, and ability to assess the potential of a translational project are key learning outcomes for the program. The program acts as a sandbox for students to explore these skills to become better scientists, investigators and translational researchers.

These two approaches to translation are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The scientific investigator who makes the new discovery may be faced with a decision of what to do with the discovery to make it useful: to develop a diagnostic, prognostic, or therapeutic. Like a clinician scientist who sees patients with a need, the scientific investigator must also decide on a medical need to address. Those scientists must like wise go through processes of ideation, iteration, and evaluation to develop something that may be of important health benefit or commercial success. And although each discovery, each need, each venture, or each commitment to advance knowledge may require particular and unique interventions, there are common ways of thinking and understanding of what it takes to transform translations.

Building a better hand axe is no longer the core of translating knowledge into innovation, understanding knowledge and understanding needs are increasingly fundamental to transforming discoveries into products, processes, pathways, policies, and protocols with benefits to people and society.

Join US. Be part of the second TRP cohort starting September 2016. See trp.utoronto.ca for more information and for directions of how to apply.