Translational Research at Robarts: Back to the Future

The term 'translational research' has received a lot of attention in recent years and has become an aspirational goal for health researchers.  

But what does it really mean?

At its core, translational research is aimed at connecting all health research activities (biomedical, clinical and population-based research) to strategies for improving human health. This is accomplished through changes in medical practice (including diagnostics and therapeutics), health policy and health care delivery. Research translation of knowledge literally brings health research to life, making it relevant to all of us.

Early concepts of translational research were unidirectional in nature wherein findings from the lab were translated to clinic and then applied to medical practice or health policy. Subsequently, it was realized that this is an overly simplistic view – this “bench to bedside” model has now been modified to encompass the notion of “bench to bedside and back again”. In other words, observations made in the clinic or in a population can serve to generate hypotheses, which in turn become the subject of basic research studies.

For me, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, a biomedical engineer, scientist and radiologist, and former Vice Dean of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine best summarizes the importance of translational research.

“It is the responsibility of those of us involved in today’s biomedical research enterprise to translate the remarkable scientific innovations we are witnessing into health gains for the nation. At no other time has the need for a robust, bidirectional information flow between basic and translational scientists been so necessary”.

When Robarts Research Institute opened in 1986, Dr. Henry Barnett articulated his vision for the Institute as a place where basic scientists and clinicians could work together to accelerate the pace at which research discoveries could be introduced into the clinic to improve patient care.

In 2019, as we contemplate and plan for the future of Robarts, we have gone back to Dr. Barnett’s founding principle for the Institute to create strategies around how we can build on this vision.

Key to the concept of translational research is working in multidisciplinary teams. This is a hallmark of Robarts, which acts as a nucleus to bring clinicians, engineers and basic scientists, such as physicists, cell and molecular biologists, physiologists and geneticists, together to tackle health challenges. We are continuously strengthening bridges with our clinical colleagues throughout London and beyond to accelerate cutting-edge projects.

Some examples of our work include:

  • developing new approaches for more precise ablation treatment of cardiac arrhythmias;
  • designing minimally invasive surgical strategies using virtual and augmented reality and robotics (for example, the Neuromate robot at London Health Sciences Centre that is used to surgically implant electrodes to detect the origin of seizure activity in the brain);
  • identifying brain abnormalities in drug-resistant epilepsy patients using powerful neuroimaging approaches;
  • developing ultrasound technologies to guide the insertion of needles for more precise tumour ablation;
  • using 3-D printing to enable the development of more precisely tailored orthopaedic implants;
  • detecting non-functional lung tissue in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma using state-of-the-art imaging approaches;
  • identifying mutations resulting in high cholesterol using sophisticated, next-generation sequencing approaches and bioinformatics analyses. This is an excellent example of precision medicine, which combines patient-level and population-level observations to precisely identify the genetic basis of a disease and thus tailor clinical treatments.

While we take great pride in our accomplishments, there is more work to be done. Indeed, we are firmly focused on the future as we develop an Innovation Floor at the Institute. This research space will be a dynamic nexus for engineers, basic scientists, clinicians and private sector companies to come together to further catalyze translational research and ensure that medical developments have the necessary input from the adopters of new technologies.

Annually we host a number of events for members of the community designed to underscore the concept of translational medicine by highlighting the team-based approach at the Institute.  While the Discover Robarts series is sold-out for 2019, we always welcome opportunities to engage community members on tours so that you can see first-hand this exciting research in action. If you have an interest in meeting members of the team or touring a particular area, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Marlys Koschinsky, PhD
Scientific and Executive Director, Robarts Research Institute