Birgit Pless got her first glimpse of translational research in 2003 when, as a student working toward a master’s degree, she did an internship at Berlin’s Benjamin Franklin University Hospital. She spent the summer searching for new drugs for inflammatory bowel diseases. Once she had been dazzled by the bright promise of helping patients in their daily life, basic research paled.
But it wasn’t until April of this year that she found another training opportunity in translational research. That was when she heard about the new, Frankfurt-based International Research Graduate School for Translational Biomedicine (FIRST), where she just enrolled this summer. “Only [FIRST] combined basic research with applied medicine and taught pharmaceutical basics,” she says.
Translational research is fast becoming a priority in Europe. The European Commission set the tone by targeting most of its €6 billion health research budget for 2007-2013 at pan-European translational projects. Dedicated training programs such as FIRST are multiplying, but they remain few, vary greatly in approach, and are often works in progress. Three new European programs exemplify the range of approaches to training in translational research.
Injecting medicine into basic science
The new Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Translational Research in Neuromuscular Disease, based at University College London (UCL) and Newcastle University, aims to provide a broad understanding of clinical context to influence research questions, says Michael Hanna, a neurologist at UCL’s Institute of Neurology. The center, which will open its doors this October under Hanna’s direction, received a £3.5 million grant from the MRC to support its first 5 years, including the Ph.D. training of six biology students and two medical doctors.
Basic-science students will get direct contact with clinicians and patients at partner hospitals to pique their interest in research questions relevant to clinical care, Hanna says. Students will spend a year taking introductory courses on neuromuscular disorders and learning neuroscience techniques before starting a 3-year research project.
The two physicians will research a 3-year Ph.D. project in which they will work closer to patients than most basic scientists can, Hanna says. Hanna hopes to soon get more funding for training. “The intention will be to … have a lot more [students] in the future,” he says.
A roundtrip, bench-to-bedside
In 2004, the University of Milan-Bicocca in Italy launched an international doctoral program in translational and molecular medicine called DIMET. DIMET connected the department of biotechnology and biosciences with the faculty of medicine so students could move easily between basic and applied biomedical research.
Some DIMET students’ projects take a disease-driven approach, whereas others start with a basic finding and aim to develop clinical applications. Combining the two approaches is as fundamental for translational researchers as it is challenging, says DIMET coordinator Andrea Biondi, a clinician and cancer researcher at the university.
Some science students got to work at the interface between the lab and the clinic. After generating T cells against cytomegalovirus, medical biotechnologist Erica Dander, 26, wrote in collaboration with her multi-disciplinary team a successful clinical trial protocol to test whether injecting the T cells could kill infected cells in transplant patients. Working at the nearby San Gerardo Hospital, she was “in the right environment to find help” with the protocol, she says.
Promoting drug development
The FIRST program at the University of Frankfurt aims to address a lack of Ph.D. graduates who really understand the drug-development process, says Dieter Steinhilber, the coordinator of FIRST and a pharmacologist at the university’s Institute of Pharmaceutical Chemistry.
Starting in October, scientists will learn about medical science and pharmacology while physicians and pharmacists study molecular and cellular biology. During the 3-year research program, students will also take courses on all the steps of drug development, including preclinical and clinical studies, regulatory affairs, and the marketing of medicines.
To form the program, the science and medicine faculties of the University of Frankfurt partnered with the private Georg Speyer Haus research institute and the Paul Ehrlich Institute, the federal health authority agency for biopharmaceuticals. They also count on pharmaceutical companies to provide additional expertise, traineeships, and €300,000 a year.
This money will complement the annual budget of about €1 million FIRST gathered from the university and the integration of two already-funded pilot Ph.D. programs. Starting in 2008, the university plans to recruit 20 basic scientists and 10 medical doctors each year, provided the German government decides in October to give additional support to the program.
“The opportunity for this career development is now,” says Graham Lord, director of translational research development at the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre at King’s College London and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospitals. “I think the job opportunities that follow on that will be very substantial.”