Cornellians waved farewell to the days when scientists worked side by side in the same laboratory without ever communicating their work to each other, and pondered why it takes 17 years to deliver 40 percent of basic scientific discovery to the people “who needed it,” last week in Goldwin Smith Hall’s Lewis Auditorium. The event was organized by the Cornell Undergraduate Health Symposium with a focus on discussing the merits of translational medicine and the necessity for collaboration amongst researchers in the life sciences and those in the social sciences.
Dr. William Trochim, director of evaluation for the Weill Cornell Clinical and Translational Science Center, explained that the impetus for translational research is to develop clinical trials based on work done in the laboratory so as to benefit humanity in the long-run. As a self-described “unlikely character,” Trochim said that his role is to intervene in ongoing studies, critique the effectiveness and quality of their investigations and generate feedback to clinical researchers. Trochim also spoke of the necessity to have built-in evaluation systems that would help scientists “think through” the problems at hand and consider possible questions like “what do you mean by this?”
Trochim emphasized that medical research thrives on feedback from its immediate community — in this case, his office and New York City locals. He went on to show different models aimed at explaining the process of “translation.” Based on his models, Trochim deduced that that the flow of scientific information is multidirectional. As such, he said, scientists cannot live in a vacuum.
“A lot of the problems we have to address need to be done by collaboration [and] communication.” He said, adding that by realizing this necessity, Weill Cornell Medical College has been working hand-in-hand with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Rockefeller University. The trio coordinates a Tri-Institutional MD-PhD translational medicine Program. WCMC geneticists work directly with Hunter College’s Center for Study of Gene Structure and Function.
Also in attendance were Prof. Elaine Wethington, human development and sociology, and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging and the New York City Interdisciplinary Geriatric Research Center; Dr. Chih-Chang Chu, fiber science and apparel design; Prof. Mark Rubin, pathology and laboratory medicine and Prof. Ann Forsyth, city and regional planning. All speakers were involved in translational research.
According to Wethington, the National Institute on Aging was the primer of translational medicine, although a different name was used at the organization’s inception. Wethington’s work focuses on elders self-neglect, artist aging, depression, chronic pain and non-pharmacological control of the various ailments that afflict people of age. She emphasized that her studies are conducted with New Yorkers in mind. Moreover, her goal is to respond to the needs of the diverse community settings characteristic of New York City neighborhoods based on “evidence-based” practice. But Wethington did not start her investigation so easily.
“When I came to Cornell I was one of two people interested in aging, I was like an alien,” she said, adding that she had to self-train and collaborate with others, lest, her goal of “improving the quality of life” of the elderly become shadowed.
Of her later work, Wethington said, “What I became was a match maker between Weill Cornell medical researchers and social scientists at Cornell [in Ithaca],” thereby creating a situation where medical researchers had social scientists as peer-mentors and vice versa. While their frames of references are different, she said, gerontologists — scientists that study the aging process from a social perspective — and geriatrics researchers — life scientists that study old age from a quantitative perspective — must come together.
Chu, who works on biodegradable fibers for the regeneration of human tissue and drug delivery described translational medicine as a place where the “software” meets the “hardware.”
“I see translational science as a blend of software and hardware, the software being social science and the hardware being engineering,” he said.
A researcher in the field of prostate cancer progression, Rubin focuses on the development of molecular biomarkers for prostate cancer — substances that tell the presence of one molecule from another — to help distinguish idle from aggressive diseases.
Rubin reasoned that the slow-pace nature of applied research can be attributed to dissimilarity among the modes of infection of various organs. The idea that 17 years is the average time frame needed to translate 40 percent of basic research into the market, according to Rubin, is bearable when compared to the fact that it took over 40 years before the first gene therapy for Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia — one of the various cancers of the bone marrow — was made available to the market.
“We’re probably harming most men by having them have PSA [prostate-specific antigen] .screens, [when] 95 percent don’t need the [screen],” he mentioned.
Asked whether seeking patents elongated the time between discovery and delivery, Chu responded that licensing and commercialization are essential to research advancement. With drug development being the most resource-intensive project, he said, only big firms can afford to invest billions of dollars into a clinical study that has the potential of failing without bearing the financial brunt of the loss. And while the process of securing patents for intellectual discoveries may lengthen the process of innovation, scientists like Chu have little choice but to pursue legal protection for their products. In the long-run, he said, the process does not eliminate the possibility of publishing one’s research in an open-source medium.
For Trochim, the lengthy process of translational medicine raises a concern: how do institutions attract young minds into a field this slow?
Manoj Easaw ’09 said the event served as a survey for translational research.
“I never really knew what translational medicine is, and I wanted to find out what it’s all about.” Also, the process of “how research becomes put into actual practice” grabbed his attention.
CUHC co-presidents Nicky Chopra ’09 and Nishant Trivedi ’09 agreed that the event fulfilled its purpose, which was to corroborate the social science side of healthcare — evident in other CUHC lectures — with an event aimed to target laboratory-based sciences, too.
“We wanted to cater for all audiences, and we thought this event [was appropriate] to engage people. It’s the best way to present every topic in every facet possible,” Trivedi said.
The evening was coordinated by Minella Capili ’10, secretary of CUHC and Natalie Johnson ’10.