Translational Research Institute: Beyond the Lab

David Robinson

UAMS’ Vladimir Zharov, Ph.D., is a “translational” researcher. His inter-nationally recognized nanomedicine research has led to new, exciting possibilities for early diagnosis of cancer, infections and stroke, as well as prospects for commercialization of in vivo noninvasive blood testing.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is looking for more Zharovs in the biomedical research field, and UAMS, through its NIH-funded Translational Research Institute, is working to oblige.

UAMS has more than 500,000 square feet dedicated to understanding life at organ, cell and gene levels. This important “basic science” has long been the foundation of biomedical innovation and discovery. Even so, attention has turned in the last decade to expediting the translation of laboratory discoveries to improved diagnosis and treatment of patients.

Citing NIH statistics, Laura James, M.D., director of the UAMS Translational Research Institute, noted that new drugs, devices and other interventions take an average of 14 years to bring to market, cost as much as $2 billion, and experience a 95 percent failure rate.

“The process can be extremely onerous, because researchers must contend with numerous regulatory hurdles, design feasible yet rigorous clinical studies, find people who are willing and eligible to participate in the research, and compete for a shrinking supply of taxpayer dollars dedicated to research,” James said.

In 2006, the NIH offered competitive awards to research institutions with the best ideas for overcoming the time and cost barriers and improving the success rate of translational research. The effort is funded through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA).

[pullquote type=”right”]The purpose of our efforts is to improve the health and health care of Arkansans.[/pullquote]UAMS received a CTSA in 2009. The $19.9 million award, along with significant institutional funds, supports the UAMS Translational Research Institute, which was established in 2011.

The translational research at a CTSA goes beyond extending basic science discoveries into clinical settings; it also requires critical involvement of community members and clinicians at every stage of research, from the researcher’s idea to the implementation of results into the community. It also includes studying how research findings are being implemented to determine the best methods that will produce sustained changes in the practice of medicine and in human health.

The Translational Research Institute uses a number of approaches to make translational research more efficient and improve researcher success. These include better use of technology and available patient data such as the electronic health record; promoting collaboration and team science among researchers; partnering with communities; commercialization of new products, services and treatment approaches; and streamlining regulatory and other research processes.

Targeted funding from the institute can also help speed the pace of research. A pilot grant helped Zharov move closer to commercialization by supporting development of a clinical prototype of a circulating tumor cell detection device.
“The purpose of our efforts is to improve the health and health care of Arkansans, so we are supporting research that impacts Arkansas,” James said. “This is vitally important given our state’s health status ranking of 49th nationally with high rates of obesity, diabetes and cancer, along with underlying lifestyles that contribute to these conditions.”

The institute’s mission includes establishing enduring partnerships with communities across the state, especially rural and medically underserved communities. This community engagement work is helping ensure that research is relevant to Arkansans.
Community engagement, along with a pilot grant from the institute, helped researchers at the UAMS campus in northwest Arkansas obtain two national grants totaling $5.1 million to study diabetes and other chronic diseases in the underserved Marshallese, Hispanic and Hmong communities.

The future of translational research depends on the support and development of talented new researchers, said Mary Aitken, M.D., M.P.H., who co-leads the institute’s KL2 Mentored Career Development Program with Pedro Delgado, M.D. A cornerstone of the institute, the KL2 program helps new researchers gain competence in research approaches and work in teams to maximize success.
Since 2009, 16 junior faculty have been named KL2 scholars, with many establishing funded, independent research programs.

“The KL2 gave me the opportunity to redirect my medical career toward research while I was completing a clinical fellowship in asthma and immunology at the University of Virginia,” said Hot Springs native Joshua Kennedy, M.D., who received a KL2 award in 2013. “The award provided the means to pursue research in my home state with a team that is helping advance asthma research on a national scale.”

Two former scholars, Dennis Kuo, M.D., and Holly Felix, Ph.D., have competed successfully for federal grants and presented their findings at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with their published work in the prestigious health policy journal Health Affairs.

“One of our goals is to help train the next generation of translational researchers,” Aitken said. “Our graduates are providing a great return on investment.”