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Translational Cancer Research: Moving Treatment From Lab to Bedside

Sep 12, 2017
Dr. Becknell in the lab

A common buzz-word in medical schools and academic hospitals, and particularly in cancer centers, is “translational research.” But what does that mean? Are doctors and researchers all studying the Rosetta Stone, figuring out how to translate languages?

Simply put, translational research refers to the work being done to make a new discovery useful to everyday people. Translational research is what happens when we move a new finding made in the lab (“at the bench”) to be useful for a patient (“at the bedside”). It sits squarely between basic discovery research and clinical research, bridging the laboratory and the clinic. The term is also used for getting a new type of therapy out of the universities and into the communities for more widespread use.

What is special about translational research? Once a discovery is made in the lab, why can’t we just start using it on patients?  Before a new treatment can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (or by parallel regulatory groups in other countries), we all want to be certain it is both safe to use and at least somewhat effective. I think we can all agree we must leave the days of false-promises using snake oil far behind us. Translational research is the first step to making sure that happens.

As it turns out, humans are quite different than cells grown in a dish, or than animals studied in a laboratory or even in a veterinary clinical practice. Translational research is geared toward figuring out those differences and whether or not what was found in the dish or the animal is true in a person.

For example, do people absorb and metabolize a drug in a similar fashion (so-called pharmacokinetics)? Does a drug affect cancer cells in a person the same way as it did in a dish or in an animal (so-called pharmacodynamics)? To answer these questions, different doses of drugs are given to patients, and blood or tissue samples are collected and taken back to the laboratory bench for testing.

Because translational research directly involves patients, the numbers and types of people that must get involved is far above what is needed for laboratory research. Oversight committees must approve the research, each involving over a dozen people with different backgrounds and expertise. As examples, all of our proposed translational research studies are approved by both a Clinical Scientific Review Committee and the Institutional Review Board.

Nurses and pharmacists must get involved, because they dispense and administer the new medication and draw the blood samples. Many times other specialists must also join in, such as surgeons who collect samples, radiologists who assess any effects on tumor growth, and a variety of doctor specialists who monitor and manage side effects. Overlaying all this work are research coordinators and associates who schedule appointments, collect data, write and submit reports, and ensure that all local, state, and federal rules are followed. You can imagine that the costs of translational research skyrocket! Only large centers like Nationwide Children’s Hospital have the resources, in large part to the generous support of the community, to undertake these challenges.

Despite all of the extra work and high expenses, translational research is vital if we want to improve how we take care of patients in the future. The past has shown us that “research cures cancer,” as evidenced by our ability to now cure 9 out of 10 patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which was a death sentence throughout human history up to the 1940s when we started testing chemotherapies. So we can’t stop now, because there are many other types of cancers that are still hard to treat. For the sake of all children who will be diagnosed with cancer in the future, we need to keep the buzz-word buzzing.

For more information on cancer research at Nationwide Children’s, click here.

Featured Expert

Timothy Cripe
Timothy Cripe, MD, PhD
Hematology, Oncology and BMT

Dr. Timothy P. Cripe is chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Dr. Cripe is also a member of the faculty at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.