In an academic environment bustling with research activity such as the University of Arizona, scientists routinely make discoveries that hold the potential for new drugs, new medical treatments or new medical devices. However, it can take years for such a discovery to make it from the "lab bench" to the "bedside" in the form of a new treatment that benefits patients.
To boost its bench-to-bedside science and position itself in a more competitive place to acquire translational research funding from the National Institutes of Health, the UA has formed a Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, known as CTSI, to provide the groundwork for therapeutic advances that will directly advance medical care.
"We want to bring to the people of Arizona the best that is available in medicine," said Dr. William M. Crist, vice president for health affairs at the UA. "A university of this size and caliber provides a perfect environment to translate innovative research directly into new therapeutic solutions."
Specifically, the CTSI will provide opportunities for practitioners with knowledge about what concerns and affects their patients to interact with scientists engaging in basic research; it will provide those researchers with access to human tissue samples in which they can test new ideas; it will facilitate interactions between fledgling biotech enterprises or established pharmaceutical companies and the University; it will streamline the use of new drugs and vaccines found to be effective in clinical trials without being hindered by ignorance about best therapeutic practices or lack of consideration of ethnic and cultural background; and it will serve as a hub for physician-scientists who treat patients and do research in "translational" areas that connect basic science to clinical treatment.
In traditional clinical settings, physicians often struggle with clinical obligations that take too much time away from pursuing efficient, outcome-oriented lab research.
In contrast, the CTSI will provide an "environment in which clinician faculty members have the resources, the mentorship and the encouragement to dedicate a significant proportion of their time to research," according to Leslie Tolbert, UA vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development. "With our very strong base in the fundamental life sciences and in clinical research, the UA is in a highly favorable position for such an institute to flourish as it builds bridges to connect the two."
The CTSI initiative is part of the university-wide Transformation Plan, through which UA is building strategically on existing strengths and resources to most effectively meet our missions in education, research and connection to the community.
UA Provost Meredith Hay has committed $6 million to develop a Translational Biomedicine Program, which will connect bench research with medical care through the hire of new clinician-scientists who will attract significant translational medicine funding from the NIH.
The new CTSI will connect clinical scientists in the colleges of the UA's Arizona Health Sciences Center (Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy and Public Health) with other colleges, including Science, Engineering, Agriculture and Life Sciences, Law and Management, and will be administered through the BIO5 Institute.
The institute complements and extends major efforts in biomedicine and biotechnology that Arizona voters funded through Proposition 301, including those mounted by scientists in BIO5.
The institute will grow on a solid foundation formed by already established UA programs and facilities, which together provide the crucial ingredients for translational medicine: drug discovery, genomics, proteomics, biostatistics and medical device development.
Although based at the UA, the institute will encompass facilities and institutions across the state, such as Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. Partnerships are also being sought with private healthcare providers in Tucson, Phoenix and across the state.
"Take our already strong drug discovery program, for example," said Fernando Martinez, director of BIO5 and head of the Arizona Respiratory Center, who has been designated to lead the translational institute's efforts. "There is no doubt that we will find molecules that we can commercialize for the University, thus providing revenue streams that become ever more critical in times where state funding goes down rapidly."
In addition to establishing a strong clinical and translational research infrastructure serving translational researchers and biotechnology entrepreneurs across Arizona, CTSI will oversee the development of a community outreach program to connect community needs in health and wellness with the state's clinical and translational research community.
With the CTSI in place, the UA will dramatically improve its competitive edge when applying for federal funding for bench-to-bedside science.
"The CTSI provides an environment for an exciting, new kind of science, which you could call ‘use-inspired research,'" Martinez said. "Bench-to-bedside research is becoming ever more critical, it is the way medicine is done today. Physicians who want to be able to apply the most recent findings in their patient care have to have a much deeper understanding of molecular biology than has been required in a traditional clinical setting."
"The Clinical and Translational Science Award program of the NIH, which addresses the need for improved translational biomedicine nationally, has already funded 46 CTSIs and expects to eventually support 60," he added. "We want to be, need to be and can be, one of them."