For UND School of Medicine and Health, partnerships are key to advancing breakthroughs
To do this, they must bridge the gap between purely scientific researchers and clinical professionals. The School of Medicine (SMHS) has focused on work in the area of translational research, which aims to “translate” scientific research into practical treatments. This work is carried out through the Dakota Cancer Collaborative on Translational Activity, a translational clinical research center (CTR), which brings together teams of doctors and researchers.
“One of the things that we do is through the CTR, that we try to fund some of these activities from the bench to the bedside,” said Marc Basson, senior associate dean of medicine and the research. “We don’t specifically fund individuals, we fund clinician / non-clinician teams, and that’s by design. It’s unique to our CTR.
This creates a forum for researchers with a specific idea to contact a doctor and ask if it has merit. It’s a way to keep science on track towards a cure, or the generation of a new medical device or piece of equipment. It’s an idea that works both ways. Physicians, who may not be able to conduct a study on their own or lack the technology to do so, can contribute their laboratory research ideas to SMHS.
“Building these teams, I think, has been very helpful,” Basson said.
The idea of a CTR center is not new and work in similar paradigms is underway across the country. Basson said five years ago that this was not the case at UND, and the idea of engaging in translational research has come to the fore to encourage “crosstalk” between scientists and physicians. . The SMHS has been running a doctoral program in clinical and translational sciences since 2016. A multi-million dollar donation from a former SMHS researcher has created an endowed chair in translational research. The position is expected to be filled next year.
Researchers at the Dakota Cancer Collaborative Center are working to develop innovative cancer treatments in North Dakota and South Dakota. The CTR center is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health, which is in the process of being renewed, with an expanded range of diseases to study. Researchers there are also able to study COVID-19, due to the national momentum to fight the virus.
Still a long process
But the idea of rapidly advancing treatments for patients doesn’t mean researchers are taking shortcuts. The development of a new drug can take years. Basson said seven to 10 years is normal, and it’s not unusual for researchers to spend 15 years on a potential drug. The translational partnerships established at the SMHS allow researchers not to publish their results and hope that a clinician takes up the torch and sets up a clinical study. They can tackle the idea themselves.
Joshua Wynne, dean of SMHS, said the mRNA coronavirus vaccines are his favorite examples of translational research paving the way for a breakthrough. Research on mRNA vaccines had been going on for years, he said, but when the pandemic struck it took a remarkably short time to translate them into Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.
“From the time the first person was identified with (COVID-19) until a vaccine was put in a patient’s arm, it lasted less than a year,” Wynne said. “This has never happened in the history of the world.”
Wynne and Basson both emphasized the rigorous nature of bringing a new treatment to a patient. It starts in the lab, with researchers understanding the science behind a disease and what might treat it. From there, any treatment proposal goes through several approval processes.
Basson described the scope of how it’s done, for a concussion study he’s working on with Essentia Health in Fargo. The idea is to see how hyperbaric chambers can be used to treat people who don’t fully recover from concussions, between 10% and 20% of those who do, he said. The proposal must be approved by the Institutional Review Boards of Essentia and SMHS, and then requires approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration to use the oxygen and chamber in a way they do not. are currently not allowed. When this happens, review boards must re-approve the plan, not to mention anyone who wants to participate in the study.
Wynne said academics are not afraid of the extensive vetting process, which is necessary for both safety and confidence in the new treatments.
“We’re not looking to take shortcuts, on the contrary, we want to do it in a robust way so that the public has confidence in the new findings,” said Wynne.
Much of the translational research conducted at SMHS relates to cancer. Other research focuses on Alzheimer’s disease and a potential method of early detection. Colin Combs, professor at SMHS and holder of a chair of basic sciences, said that the pathology of this disease appears in a person’s intestines and is not only localized in the brain. He examines tissue samples from other organs for a connection, a connection that would allow for earlier treatment, if these signs appear faster than in the brain.
“This is one of the things that we hope to do that is quite new is to show that it doesn’t just affect the brain, and that maybe what is going on in these other organs can give us some insight into the way to improve conditions in the brain, ”Combs said.
UND and SMHS do not work alone. They have partnered with all of the state’s major medical providers, including Altru, Sanford Health, Essentia Health, and Trinity Health. Universities involved include the UND, North Dakota State University, and the University of South Dakota.
These partnerships also extend to rural and Native American healthcare providers, as clinical trials in these communities have traditionally been under-represented, Basson said.